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What Do We Actually Know About What Led to Ime Udoka’s Suspension?

The Boston Celtics suspended their head coach for the next year for an improper relationship with a colleague, but vague details and reports have made it hard to parse what actually happened

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Over the past 36 hours, here’s what we’ve learned about the events that led to the one-year suspension of Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka, in order:

  • On Wednesday night, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Udoka would be facing “possible disciplinary action—including a significant suspension—for an unspecified violation of organizational guidelines.” Wojnarowski later added that Udoka’s job would not be in jeopardy.
  • Later that night, Shams Charania of The Athletic tweeted that Udoka “had an improper intimate and consensual relationship with a female member of the team staff.” Except, by the following evening, Charania reported that the relationship may have not been that consensual. “Team leadership was led to believe by both parties that the relationship was consensual,” Charania wrote. “But sources said that the woman recently accused Udoka of making unwanted comments toward her—leading the team to launch a set of internal interviews.”
  • At a press conference Friday morning, Celtics majority owner Wyc Grousbeck offered few specifics, but did tell reporters that a monthslong investigation found a “volume of violations.”

NBA fans are used to this dynamic, where slow drips of vague reporting create widespread speculation. Typically this occurs with trades and free agency. But it has different consequences when it involves an issue of workplace misconduct. The internet, abhorring an information vacuum, was ablaze with sordid theories—or, as team president Brad Stevens put it, “Twitter speculation and rampant bullshit”—about the woman’s identity. At one point on Thursday, Andscape’s Marc Spears felt compelled to shoot down a popular theory by tweeting that one staff member was not involved.

There is still so much we don’t know. The Celtics, in a press conference Friday morning, didn’t clear much up. “I won’t be able to offer many additional facts or circumstances around what occurred and why the suspension is in place,” Grousbeck said. There could be legal reasons for this approach, as Grousbeck added that “privacy reasons for the people involved is the concern. I really have to leave you with the wording of our statement, which was admittedly fairly crisp.” At least they were transparent about how vague they were.

Privacy is important, but who is it protecting here? Certainly not the women whose names were dragged through the mud online. It’s tempting to say this is nobody else’s business. But as a head coach, Udoka wields an inordinate amount of power. No one save for maybe Stevens or the ownership group could be perceived as his equal in the Celtics’ hierarchy. When someone like him is implicated in an investigation that suggests he could have abused that power, the right to privacy comes up against the importance of transparency.

The Celtics are asking us to trust them in balancing these competing factors, and trust that those are the only factors being taken into consideration here. They are also asking us to trust their judgment on a one-year suspension and on the character of interim head coach Joe Mazzulla, who was arrested on domestic battery charges in 2009. “I believe strongly that probably shaped him into who he is today in a really good way,” Stevens said on Friday, of Mazzulla’s arrest. “But he’ll be the first to tell you that he’s 110 percent accountable for that and I’ll be the first to tell you I believe it.”

It’s hard to trust the NBA, where privacy often protects the powerful. The recent Robert Sarver saga highlights the power of transparency. After he was handed a one-year suspension and $10 million fine for an 18-year pattern of misogyny and racism, the league made the investigation public. Fans, players, league employees, and sponsors got to read it. Their outrage was the catalyst that got Sarver to agree to sell the team.

The Celtics avoided intervention from the league by hiring a law firm of their choosing to launch an investigation, but in doing so, they have only raised more questions. Like the Suns last season, the specter of what we don’t know could hang over Boston’s season. As of now, the Celtics have not made any determinations about Udoka’s future beyond the next year. Mazzulla will be navigating, with hazy authority, a coaching staff that lost its top assistant, Will Hardy, to Utah right when they need him most. Robert Williams III will miss the next eight to 12 weeks after undergoing another surgery on his knee, six months after a first procedure. This is unprecedented territory, and the Celtics are figuring out how to handle it on the fly.

“This [punishment] felt right, but there’s no clear guidelines for any of this,” Grousbeck said. “This is really a conscious, gut feel and being here 20 years. I’m responsible for the decision, ultimately. It was not clear what to do but it was clear that something substantial needed to be done, and it was.”

Until we know more, we have no choice but to take his word for it.