The Toronto Maple Leafs organization suspended goaltender Garret Sparks indefinitely for violating the team's social media policy after he used threatening and degrading language while going toe-to-toe with an online troll last week.
Toronto Marlies head coach Sheldon Keefe explained the reasoning behind his goaltender's absence after Saturday's 4-1 win over Utica, the second straight game Sparks hadn't dressed for.
"[Garret] was sent home for some team policy reasons when we were on the road trip there [in New York]," Keefe said. "I'm familiar with the circumstances, but we're not going to comment any further from there. Management handled the situation."
The comment that Sparks is being reprimanded for reads, "Tyler where do you live? I want to go to open hockey with you, drag you out to centre ice and beat you into a fucking pulp until you can't run that bitchy little mouth of yours. God you sound like a 13-year-old girl."
After being told "don't insult girls" by another member, Sparks responded, "you're right I'm sorry. Girls don't even whine as much as this guy does."
According to a statement released by the goaltending-related Facebook group "GGSU" and re-enforced by many members of the online forum, Sparks was coming to the aid of a disabled person whom was being constantly bullied, mocked and harassed by another member of the group.
"It is important to take the time to say that this issue was simply Garret protecting someone who could not defend himself. Garrett invested his time and efforts to stand up for this individual, showing that he cared deeply to the well being of someone who was being mistreated and standing up for what he believed in," said GGSU group administrator Jacob Wint.
The manner in which Sparks—who's currently with the Marlies, the Maple Leafs' AHL affiliate, and signed with the organization on a two-way contract—stood up for a young goalie in the midst of bullying and harassment is more than enviable, especially given the public platform and influence that anyone who puts on a Maple Leafs jersey automatically has. On the flip side, responsibility comes with that platform, especially that of choosing your words carefully.
The intention was right, but the language and wording used while dealing with the notorious online troll was far from commendable, and borderline embarrassing for a professional athlete in 2016. It's a delicate situation and the question as to whether the Leafs should have suspended him is a valid one.
Although the young girl who initially called Sparks out for the insulting comments is defending the goalie and his language toward the bully, it's safe to say there are many others outside of the organization, and within it, who are disturbed by how the 2011 seventh-round pick chose his words.
Being a professional athlete in the digital age is not easy. Actions online can have just as much an impact on your career as your performance on the ice, and the 23-year-old goaltender is just the latest to learn this 21st century lesson the hard way.
Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin was disciplined, but not suspended, in 2013 after tweeting out, "only steers and queers in Texas, and I'm not a cow." In 2014, David Branch and the Ontario Hockey League made headlines for a groundbreaking decision to suspend two of its players for 15 games each in relation to "vulgar and misogynistic" comments made on the social media app Tinder. There are seemingly endless examples of professional, amateur and collegiate athletes across all different sports jeopardizing their careers or reputations over the inability to hold back online.
With social media, any athlete is a screengrab away from having their career turned upside down. It's a new era and a confusing landscape for professional athletes that some players have adjusted to with ease, while others (like Sparks) seemingly haven't, at least not yet.
Sparks appeared in 17 games for the Maple Leafs last season, posting a 6-9-1 record and .893 save percentage. He became the first Maple Leafs goaltender in franchise history to record a shutout in his first career start last November. Through an injury-shortened start to this season, Sparks is 3-1-0 with a .918 save percentage with the Marlies so far.