In the latest episode of Men in Pro Sports Behaving Inappropriately – it’s an unfortunate never-ending series – the Boston Celtics suspended head coach Ime Udoka for the 2022-23 season for “violations of team policies.”
The statement from Boston did not detail those violations, but Udoka had a consensual relationship with a team staffer, a person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The person requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive nature of the topic.
How much credit the Celtics deserve for their suspension of Udoka is undetermined. If the consensual relationship didn’t become public through the media reporting it, who knows if they would’ve just kept the issue in-house and dealt with it internally. Perhaps they planned to suspend Udoka regardless.
But once it became public, the Celtics acted, and it was necessary, accepting whatever damaging fallout there is. (Before this proceeds, yes, it’s impossible to ignore the optics of Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver receiving a similar suspension for nearly two decades of unacceptable workplace behavior. I can only say Sarver’s penalty from the NBA should’ve been more harsh, and in Udoka’s case, it’s the team making the decision and not the league.)
CELTICS DECISION: Udoka suspended for season for violations of team policies
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This is a rare punishment. It’s not often a team suspends a coach for any length of time. It’s usually the league suspending a coach for an incident with a referee or an off-court legal issue such as a DUI.
Whatever one may think about the private lives of two adults, what a team – or a business – can’t have is a person in power having that kind of relationship with someone who is considered in broad terms a subordinate and certainly not an equal on the org chart.
That’s why there are rules against that in many workplaces. Not only are executives not allowed to have intimate relationships with those lower on the org chart, if they’re having a relationship with someone in another department or at the same level, it must be disclosed.
TV executive Jeff Zucker lost his job at CNN because he failed to disclose a romantic relationship with another CNN executive, and then-Minnesota Timberwolves president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas was fired one year ago for an inappropriate relationship with a colleague.
In Udoka’s case, there are too many detrimental dynamics at play such as power, influence and office morale. Even when it’s two consenting adults, the person with the power needs to be the one who makes the right decision.
Udoka, 45, didn’t do that, and several lives have been upended and careers possibly ruined, including Udoka’s.
He was a fantastic first-time NBA head coach last season with the Celtics, leading them to a solid 51-31 record after a 23-24 start. Boston won two Game 7s in the Eastern Conference playoffs and lost to Golden State in six games in the Finals.
With a fiery demeanor that is the opposite of several new coaches, Udoka earned the respect of players. Udoka may never coach another game for the Celtics, and if that’s the case, it could be a long time before he’s an NBA head coach again. He also jeopardized the personal life and professional livelihood of another person.
While winning basketball isn’t the most important aspect of this crisis, his actions are a detriment to the franchise’s reputation and potential for success on the court. Celtics ownership and president of basketball operations Brad Stevens had immense pride in hiring Udoka and letting his coaching ability shine.
He also let down those players who trusted him and expected him to help them get back to the Finals this season. He possibly destroyed Boston’s season before it started. Winning the improved East wasn’t going to be easy in the best of circumstances this season, and now they will try to do that against the omnipresent backdrop of Udoka’s mistakes.
If there’s one franchise in the league that could manage the crisis and still employ Udoka, it’s the Celtics. There is a significant amount of institutional backbone. But even in their statement announcing the suspension, they gave a foreboding message: “A decision about his future with the Celtics beyond this season will be made at a later date.”
Trust was breached, and it may not be repaired.
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt