The only thing we know for sure is that Celtics coach Ime Udoka has received a one-year suspension from the organization for reasons relating to a sexual relationship he had with another Celtics employee. We now know he got busted when the employee’s husband overheard a private conversation on a Ring camera, and we might know who the other person is. Aside from that, there is a lot of conjecture, assumptions, spin, and very, very few hard facts about what Udoka did, about how wanted or unwanted his advances were, or about how many people may or may not have been affected by his behavior. As the public salivates for new “information,” some media outlets can be tempted to speculate wildly, to put too much trust into sources with agendas, to lean on rumors and conjecture instead of the kind of vetted information that journalists are taught to trust.
In the sports media, it is especially bad. That’s usually because when you’re reporting on something as inconsequential as the goings-on in a game, the stakes are very low. “How does Kevin Durant feel about Kyrie Irving?” is a benign matter, and observing that matter in a superficial way isn’t going to do all that much damage except to maybe Durant and Irving, who are well-compensated for this kind of crap. But when something like this Udoka thing happens, the sports media is shown to be deeply lacking in the perspective or discipline that it takes to tell this story in a responsible or informative way. Because this Udoka thing is a sports story, yes, but it’s also a labor story, a story about relationships (his long-term partner is the actress Nia Long), and a story about power dynamics inherent to both of those things. And thus far, much of the sports-talking establishment has done a terrible job of framing this in a responsible manner.
This Udoka story has been screwed up royally in three key areas.
I recently wrote about the life’s work of Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania, ESPN and The Athletic’s NBA scoopmasters and two deeply strange men whose role at their respective networks is less “reporter working a beat” and more “information broker serving the needs of sources in exchange for tweetable scoops that drive engagement and keep them fed.” Wojnarowski broke the news that Udoka would be suspended for the year on his Twitter account, as is his wont.
Woj’s tweet was soon followed up by a similar tweet from Charania, confirming what Woj had come short of actually reporting: that the team had suspended Udoka for a year.
Charania then produced a report about the suspension that confirms Udoka was being suspended for having an inappropriate relationship with another Celtics employee. The word “consensual” does not appear anywhere in this report.
It’s easy to read between the lines here: Woj, speedily tweeting a non-confirmed but highly probable event, was relying on someone connected to Udoka in some way (probably his agent), who was determined to get the word “consensual” in the report to head off speculation about the event and create a buffer for Udoka.
The problem with this is that the line of consent becomes easily strained when you are someone’s boss. In NBA organizations, the coach is one of the most powerful people in the building. This means that Udoka’s little interoffice cheating adventure might be above board legally, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario where it constituted proper boss/employee conduct. Woj, of course, is not concerned with this. He is concerned with a scoop, and has allowed himself to carry water for Udoka by introducing the word “consensual” into a situation that is murky at best.
A common refrain in the last few days has contrasted the way the sports media has treated the Udoka story with the recent news that former NFL legend Brett Favre has been involved in a scheme to defraud the people of Mississippi out of millions of dollars in welfare money meant for the poorest people in the state. This refrain is catchy on social media, but falls apart upon deeper analysis.
First, it’s unfair to the sports talkers who have discussed the Favre thing. Here is Mina Kimes, for instance, shredding him on Around the Horn. Second, sports media is in its zone when talking about the sports themselves. The Udoka story, in addition to being a tale about labor and power and sex, is a story about what is going to happen with the Boston Celtics. The team thrived under Udoka’s leadership, making the NBA Finals after getting knocked out in the first round the year before, and the team’s product is bound to be impacted by the motley crew of assistants who will replace him on the sidelines. And, third, and most importantly: Why would you ever want Stephen A. Smith talking about something as important as welfare fraud? He shouldn’t be talking about anything that important!
For those who don’t know: Stephen A. Smith is the sort-of host/take machine/weird vaudeville entertainer at the heart of First Take, ESPN’s daily news and views show that is broadcast daily to every airport lounge and idle open computer in America. He is, by far, the most prominent and famous sports analyst in the country.
Now, calling Stephen A. an analyst or a commentator is perhaps literally true, but it’s akin to calling Jim Ross a “wrestling journalist”. It is impossible to watch First Take and come away with any new knowledge about the way sports work. Stephen A. isn’t breaking it down so much as he is embodying the id of the collective sports consciousness—yelling about insignificant shit every day, crying about the Knicks, dunking on Cowboys fans. He spreads wild opinions, defends them in front of credulous opponents, and generally acts like a total weirdo.
When it comes to trivial sports matters, Stephen A. Smith is fine. But the second something serious happens, he’s just horrible. Like the time [see video above] where he couldn’t keep himself from advising women everywhere to not do anything that might “provoke” a man into hitting them in the wake of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice getting caught viciously beating his wife in an elevator in Atlantic City. Or when he said that, for the good of baseball, Angels pitcher/slugger Shohei Ohtani should speak English when interviewed by American media.
When the Udoka news broke and Stephen A. was asked for his opinion, he didn’t talk about the dynamics at play, or the strangeness of the story, or the gigantic gaps in information. He instead opted to go on at length about how the Celtics were creating a miasma of unknowing by suspending Udoka instead of firing him straight-up. He says that miasma is the cause of wild speculation over who exactly Udoka was having an affair with and delivers it hot and fresh, like a sports take, about something related to sports and only sports.
Excusing Udoka and covering up their findings would have been the old way of doing it, defaulting to protecting a person in power and hoping no one finds out. It’s what Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver did for years, right up until Baxter Holmes exposed him. It’s also the kind of thing that doesn’t work anymore because Udoka would have gotten sued and discovery would have been publicized. Stephen A. seems to broadly approve of this as standard operating procedure for sports teams dealing with interoffice power-imbalanced relationships, which is strange at best. On the other hand, firing Udoka and keeping the reason quiet would produce the exact same outcome, because everyone in the world would wonder why the hell the Celtics fired a coach who just got them to the Finals and would eventually figure out the reason, unleashing public ire on Udoka and implicating the Celtics in a cover-up.
But Stephen A. is not concerned with the real problems here. His entire mind is devoted to sports-as-sports, and to him this whole thing is messy and the best way to deal with something messy is to clean it up until there is as little mess as possible.
When ESPN sideline reporter Malika Andrews called him out on this, he was unbelievably rude to her on-air, acting like she was Skip Bayless and not a woman discussing an issue that relates to the struggles women have faced in the workplace day after year after decade.
I’m not going to call for Stephen A. Smith’s job because he is not going to lose it. But I will say that Stephen A. and other sportswriters and talkers whose careers are built on a total disregard for the world outside sports, on the goodness of organizational order over everything else, are completely unequipped to deal with this story. Maybe someday there will be a First Take host who can be both an entertaining buffoon and self-aware enough to not inadvertently revive the bad ol’ times sexual harassment corporate playbook. But I would not count on it.
There’s something else going on here. Everyone in the NBA information sphere knows it, and no one is talking about it. Matt Barnes, a retired journeyman NBA forward who hosts a podcast about the league, originally responded to the news with an “I don’t think he should have been suspended”-type response. Then, the next day, he deleted that response and posted a video that he appears to have shot while driving, which seems like a bad idea.
Rough translation: I heard some stuff and I can’t tell you, but I don’t want that last take on the record.
Sports reporters are inveterate gossips. Stephen A. can claim that there was a way to do this in the shadows, to keep everyone out of it, but man, if anyone knows about how rich and stinky the NBA gossip vein is, it’s Stephen A. Smith. The rumor mill, the stories traded over DMs and media meals, the messed-up shit you heard about so and so having chlamydia, that’s the fuel of the entire sports-information world—the fascinating but unreportable underworld.
Usually, sports are not all that important. But sometimes, sports crash into the outside world. It’s at this point when the impulse to gossip that undergirds every inch of column space and every eyeball affixed to ESPN becomes something stranger. In the wake of these announcements, there were dudes who are so far from the know that they might not be legally allowed in a room with an NBA player logging onto the Celtics’ personnel page and trying to figure out who Udoka might have been cheating on his wife with. This was awful but also predictable. Sports fandom inevitably involves speculation, innuendo, and assumption. A reputation for being “clutch” is nonsense statistically, but the eye of the fan builds it anyway. We see sports as an object for interpretation—a grand Jungian playground for the mind to derive shallow, wild truths. Harnessing that impulse is what made Stephen A’s career.
When it’s just a game then that impulse is fun at best and stupid at worst. But when it involves something more serious, these readings become strange and possibly harmful. Until someone knows something about this Udoka thing, untainted by influence or secrecy, that’s the space where it will live in the media and elsewhere.