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Ime Udoka suspension a tough cover for sports media

The Celtics suspended Ime Udoka for one year on Thursday and the fallout has been difficult and awkward to cover in today’s sports media climate.

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NBA: Finals-Media Day Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Not everyone enters sports media for the hard-hitting journalism. It’s a different game, typically with lower stakes, and that’s led to lower expectations and sometimes, standards.

There’s crossover, of course, between the great reporters who chase big stories with human implications in politics, business, and society who love how sports intersect with almost every area of the world. Some enter directly as former fans who love the game, the stats, the players, the teams, and all the personalities.

My first came in 2019 when we visited the Syracuse police station for a reporting class when news broke that Jim Boeheim hit and killed someone on the highway. I still remember saying, “oh s***.” I was in the right place at the right time to start reporting details.

That happened in Boston this week when the Celtics suspended former head coach Ime Udoka for one year for multiple violations of team policy. Days before a season where Jayson Tatum’s MVP pursuit, a run back at the NBA Finals, Robert Williams III’s injury and Malcolm Brogdon’s arrival would’ve been the stories to kick off training camp, there’s only one entering Media Day today.

That’s the first lesson here: you never fully know someone you cover.

A story only beginning to develop — reportedly involving an improper relationship between Udoka and a team employee — has already been saturated with celebrity gossip, conservations around workplace standards and women working in sports and the impact on the team in just three days.

The Celtics largely cited respecting and protecting privacy while avoiding addressing specifics of an unprecedented punishment that came out of nowhere from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski on Wednesday night. The intrigue will continue, with Udoka’s future uncertain and the severity of his actions unknown.

Udoka might’ve owned the safest standing on the team next to Tatum through this week despite a strangely silent summer since his appearance at Summer League in July. News that the team levied a significant punishment without NBA involvement immediately rose antennas and questions around the league. Despite that hunger for more information, it soon became clear why the Celtics might’ve been hesitant about releasing further details.

In what team governor Wyc Grousbeck described as a leak that did not originate from the team, The Athletic’s Shams Charania reported the suspension stemmed from an improper consensual relationship. That immediately caused confusion once Woj previewed the length of the suspension.

An workplace relationship, while complicated and messy, wouldn’t be a first. Debates have raged about whether a person in Udoka’s position of power on the team could have a consensual relationship with a fellow employee, or if the matter could’ve been quietly handled behind the scenes.

Despite Grousbeck’s and more notably, Brad Stevens’ strong distaste for what’s happening on social media, speculation has run rampant and continues online as to which female employee Udoka allegedly partnered with once the violation became public. Celtics VP Allison Feaster became one of the earliest female staffer to be widely smeared, forcing ESPN’s Marc Spears to clarify she had nothing to do with the story.

“We have a lot of talented women in our organization and I thought yesterday was really hard on them,” Stevens said, nearing tears. “Nobody can control Twitter speculation and rampant b#%$&*@t, but I do think that we as an organization have a responsibility to support them now because a lot of people were dragged unfairly into that.”

TMZ and others will attempt to pursue the illicit details of the relationship particularly because of Udoka’s celebrity fiance, Nia Long, but the most important remaining questions involve the Celtics’ workplace and its procedures to deal with a workplace relationship and its inherent power dynamic.

Charania followed up his initial reporting by noting that the organization knew of Udoka’s relationship in July and believed it was consensual before a recent complaint by the female employee regarding unwanted comments. Grousbeck also confirmed that the woman, or women, involved won’t be penalized.

Grousbeck believed Udoka’s violations plural were isolated incidents and the investigation the team outsourced to an idependent law firm heated up over the past month. The team only revealed they learned of the situation earlier this summer, with Grousbeck saying he’ll look into his workplace to see if there are signs the organization’s standards of respect and freedom from harassment haven’t been followed.

Grousbeck said Udoka received a significant financial penalty in the suspension, too. But if Udoka’s behavior rose to that level, he should never coach the Celtics again and it’s unclear why he wasn’t fired immediately upon the conclusion of the report this week if they had cause.

These questions are more important than the impact on Udoka’s relationship or the identity of the woman/women involved. Both should remain in secret. Boston needs to be held accountable and transparent if its systems didn’t protect its employees and Grousbeck affirmed they were enforced consistent with how they have been in the past.

“I think this incident came up, we spent every waking hour on it when it really heated up over the last month, or the last couple of weeks,” Grousbeck said in response to a CLNS Media/CelticsBlog question. “We made the appropriate decision, I’ll just leave it at that.”

Other pressed the team on their hiring practices, with Stevens stating that Udoka was vetted last summer, as was interim head coach Joe Mazzulla in 2019 that included an arrest for domestic battery in college. And just as the Celtics front office must do their due diligence during their hiring process, so should basketball media in reporting these types of stories.

The most important job for the media is accountability. Admittedly, that can be difficult to achieve in this current sports reporting climate. Wojnarowski and Charania are news breakers, but the purposefully vague and complicated nature of Udoka’s suspension demanded a fuller assessment. Being first matters in the business, but this was bigger than basketball.

ESPN First Take’s Stephen A. Smith, speaking on the assumption that the relationship was “consensual,” blasted the Celtics for what he viewed as a double standard regarding office relations. Former NBA player Matt Barnes felt similarly, before he took back his previous statement criticizing the suspension once he learned more details from someone close to the situation. Unfortunately, even the definition of the word “consensual” is complicated and easily misinterpreted.

It all calls into question whether sports media is equipped to cover a story like this in 2022 effectively. There are great reporters in this business, but in this world dependent on speed that blurs the line between journalism and entertainment, a situation like this commands more attention to detail and consideration. The protection of women in sports depends on it. Making sure the Celtics make the right decision regarding whether or not Udoka ever returns as head coach depends on it. Demanding transparency, even considering privacy, matters.

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