What started with a leaked allegation that Boston Celtics head coach Ime Udoka had a consensual relationship with a female colleague has now become a far bigger mess than a run-of-the-mill cheating scandal.
On Thursday night, after nearly 24 hours of uninhibited (and oftentimes misogynistic) speculation aimed at women employees of the organization, the Celtics released a vague statement. As predicted, the franchise announced that Udoka had been suspended for the entirety of the 2022-2023 season for unspecified “violations of team policies,” and said a decision about his future with the Celtics would be “made at a later date.”
Following the announcement, however, the story took a harrowing turn. The Athletic reported earlier this week that Udoka’s suspension was due to an “intimate relationship with a female member of the organization,” which sources said the Celtics first became aware of in July. At the time, the relationship was believed to be consensual. Now, the Athletic is reporting that the woman “recently accused Udoka of making unwanted comments toward her,” setting off an internal investigation. The saga originally looked to be a fumbled private dalliance—one man’s misguided choice in wronging his longtime partner Nia Long, with whom he shares a son. Now, the nature of that “consensual” infidelity is in question, and reporters are beginning to ask the Celtics if things descended into sexual harassment (the team declined to comment).
On the whole, there are far too many parties directly or tangentially involved in a situation we have very little information about. To keep everything straight, here’s what the major (and a few minor) players have said about the controversy—and the women pulled into it against their will—so far:
In a statement shared with ESPN’s Malika Andrews on Thursday, Udoka said: “I want to apologize to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down. I am sorry for putting the team in this difficult situation, and I accept the team’s decision. Out of respect for everyone involved, I will have no further comment.” Udoka has not addressed the “unwanted comments” update, nor has he apologized directly to the women within the organization who were harmed, doxxed (names and photos), and slut-shamed in the virtual town square.
After its terse statement and at least 24 hours of silence regarding the online smearing of women employees, the Celtics held a press conference Friday morning to address Udoka’s suspension and the ensuing mayhem. Majority owner and Governor of the Celtics Wyc Grousbeck mostly read from a printout of notes, saying he takes “ultimate responsibility for everything at the Celtics.” “It’s unfortunate…that female staff members of the Celtics have been dragged into the public eye unwillingly and inappropriately, and we take a strong stand against that and just regret it for them,” he continued.
Celtics President of Basketball Operations Brad Stevens added: “We have a lot of talented women in our organization, and yesterday was really hard on them. Nobody can control Twitter speculation…rampant bullshit. I do think that we as an organization have a responsibility to make sure we’re there to support them now because a lot of people were dragged unfairly into that.”
Grousbeck and Stevens didn’t have much else to add, citing “privacy reasons,” but they did confirm that an independent law firm had taken on the “long, thorough process” of interviewing employees about Udoka, and that the investigation had wrapped on Wednesday after revealing “twists and turns.” When asked why the team’s statement alluded to “violations, plural,” Grousbeck replied, “There were a couple of violations, at least.” Regarding the severity of the punishment, he added, “I personally feel that this [suspension] is well warranted and appropriate backed by substantial research and evidence.”
While the Celtics appear to be following protocol, a handful of critical questions still remain unanswered. Will the results of this investigation be made public? Will there be institutional change at the organization to prevent whatever happened from happening again? And if the transgressions could be characterized as “sexual harassment,” will they be announced as such? As sexual assault prevention educator Brenda Tracy pointed out, not deliberately defining what took place gives spectators free rein to downplay Udoka’s actions.
(Jezebel reached out to the Celtics for comment and will update this piece if we hear back.)
Long, who the internet seemed to rally around, issued a statement to CNN through her rep on Friday: “The outpouring [of] love and support from family, friends and the community during this difficult time means so much to me. I ask that my privacy be respected as I process the recent events. Above all, I am a mother and will continue to focus on my children.”
The undefined nature of the Celtics’ mess is spreading with the speed of the Delta variant (sorry!).
New York congressman Jamaal Bowman seized this somber moment to advocate for a “Nia Long national holiday!” Not now, sweetheart.
ESPN’s broadcaster Stephen A. Smith also took a hard stance on the drama Thursday, tweeting the suspension was “utter BULLSHIT.” He’d previously made clear that he thought the issue of race was baked into this controversy, wondering why a Black coach might be severely punished for something white men constantly get away with. And while it’s true that Black men face harsher punishments than their white counterparts, Smith’s colleague Andrews, who is also Black, felt the Celtics hadn’t yet doled out enough information for him to be “pointing fingers.” Smith got so heated during the live broadcast that he began interrupting and shushing Andrews for undermining him “on [his] show,” which became its own breakout shitstorm.
Meanwhile at the Boston Globe, while calling out the “Twitter gangsters” for trying to pinpoint which women at the Celtics might have been involved with Udoka, one writer not only named one of the employees, but went on to sexualize her in the piece, calling her “a stunning Black woman.”
All of that said, this entire debacle is still, unfortunately, a textbook sporting bungle. This isn’t the first or even the second major men’s sports franchise to be hit by allegations of sexual harassment or “unwanted comments” over the last year. And until we get more details from the Celtics, we may have to chalk this up to yet another instance in which an organization doesn’t realize it is responsible for protecting women employees before something awful happens.