In the latest episode of male misconduct in pro sports — an unfortunate never-ending series — the Boston Celtics have suspended head coach Ime Udoka for the 2022-23 season for “violating team policy.”
Boston’s statement did not detail those violations, but Udoka had a consensual relationship with a team employee, a person familiar with the situation told USA TODAY Sports. The person requested anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the sensitive nature of the matter
How much credit the Celtics deserve for their suspension of Udoka is undecided. If the consensual relationship had not been revealed through the media, who knows if they would have kept the issue at home and dealt with it internally. Perhaps they planned to suspend Udoka regardless.
But once it became public, the Celtics acted, and it was necessary, to accept whatever adverse consequences there were. (Before it goes any further, yes, it’s impossible to ignore the optics of Phoenix Suns and Mercury owner Robert Sarver receiving similar suspensions for nearly two decades of unacceptable workplace conduct. I can only say Sarver’s punishment from the NBA should have been more severe, and in Udoka’s case, the team’s Decided, not the league.)
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This is a rare punishment. It is not often that a team fires a coach for any length of time. It’s usually the league suspending a coach for an incident with a referee or for an off-court legal issue like a DUI.
No matter what one thinks about the personal lives of two adults, a team or a business – what cannot exist is a relationship between a person in power and a person who is widely considered subordinate and certainly not an equal. org chart.
So many workplaces have rules against it. Only executives are not allowed to have close relationships with people lower on the organization chart, if they have relationships 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 Gerson Rosas, president of basketball operations for the Minnesota Timberwolves, was fired a year ago for having an inappropriate relationship with a colleague.
In Udoka’s case, there are many damaging dynamics such as power, influence and office morale. Even when it’s two consenting adults, the person in power has to make the right decision.
Udoka, 45, did not, and several lives were upended and careers, including Udoka’s, possibly destroyed.
He had a great first-time NBA head coach last season with the Celtics, leading them to a 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 contrasted with many new coaches, Udoka earned the respect of the players. Udoka may not coach another game for the Celtics, and if he does, it could be a long time before he is an NBA head coach again. He also endangered the personal life and professional livelihood of another person.
While winning basketball is not the most important aspect of this crisis, his actions are detrimental to the franchise’s reputation and chances of success on the court. Celtics president of ownership and basketball operations Brad Stevens took great pride in hiring Udoka and honing his coaching abilities.
He has also disappointed the players who believed in him and hoped that he would help them get back to the finals this season. He probably ruined Boston’s season before it even started. Conquering the advanced East won’t be easy under the best of circumstances this season, and now they’ll be trying to do so against the ubiquitous backdrop of Udoka’s mistakes.
If there’s one franchise in the league that can handle the crisis and still hire 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 regarding his future with the Celtics beyond this season will be made at a later date.”
Trust has been breached, and it cannot be repaired.
Follow NBA reporter Jeff Zilgit on Twitter @JeffZilgit