The Media Column: Looking at ESPN's weird coverage of the Ime Udoka Story

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Sports media whiffed on the Ime Udoka story

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Sports Media Mayhem
How the sports media whiffed on the Ime Udoka story
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It’s difficult to understand the Ime Udoka story, because there’s barely any information out there. One week later, we still don’t know many particulars, including Udoka’s specific actions that led to his shocking yearlong suspension.

It’s a bizarre situation. We basically live in a technological surveillance state — Udoka’s relationship with the female staffer was reportedly uncovered when her husband overheard them talking on a doorbell camera — yet there’s been no additional reporting on last week’s vague generalities.

But even if new information was unearthed, it’s uncertain if the biggest brand in sports media would present it accurately. ESPN’s coverage of the story has been downright bizarre, adding even more intrigue to the whole matter.

The Woj bomb detonated at 10:35 p.m. last Wednesday: “Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka is facing possible disciplinary action – including a significant suspension – for an unspecified violation of organizational guidelines. Discussions are ongoing within the Celtics on a final determination.”

Then Adrian Wojnarowski, ESPN’s leading NBA Insider, went dark for the rest of the night. He tweeted out half the story — complete with a goofy “breaking news” graphic — so he could be first. Shams Charania, the wunderkind of NBA Insiders, tweeted a couple of hours later that Udoka was involved in an “improper and consensual relationship with a female member of the team’s staff.”

That’s how the word “consensual” entered the lexicon. Wojnarowski echoed Charania’s report Thursday morning, tweeting that Udoka’s relationship with the female staffer was “consensual.”

But that clean version of events was contradicted Thursday night, when Charania published a follow-up story. In it, Charania writes that Udoka made “unwanted comments” towards the staffer, leading the Celtics to launch a set of internal interviews.

By Friday morning, Charania’s new report was being discussed everywhere — except on ESPN. Wojnarowski never updated his original story.

As of Wednesday morning, Woj’s Udoka report, which was published last Thursday, still doesn’t include any acknowledgment of Udoka making unwanted advances. Instead, Wojnarowski writes that Udoka’s “intimate relationship” with a female employee is “considered a violation of organizational guidelines.”

Those euphemisms are doing a lot of work. Wojnarowski seems to be covering for Udoka.

Why?

Former ESPN Warriors reporter Ethan Strauss espoused a theory on his excellent Substack: Woj is protecting Udoka due to his affiliation with Creative Artists Agency (CAA). Wojnarowski and Udoka are repped by the same agent.

As Strauss outlines, Wojnarowski has a long history of covering for CAA clients, including Nets GM Sean Marks. Last month, ESPN buried the story about Kevin Durant reportedly demanding Marks’ firing.

With that information in mind, Wojnarowski’s framing of the situation on “SportsCenter” last Thursday night takes on a different tone. “The final chapter of Udoka’s coaching career has not been written,” said Wojnarowski, per Strauss’ transcription. “This is not going to be a death knell for him.”

It sounds like Woj is representing Udoka himself.

On my “Sports Media Mayhem” podcast this week, writer Corbin Smith, who wrote a critical piece in the Daily Beast about the Udoka coverage, said Wojnarowski has too many conflicting interests to be trusted on these kinds of stories.

“Guys like Wojnarowski and Shams Charania … I always feel like calling what they do ‘reporting’ is generous a little bit,” said Smith. “What they actually do is, they are information brokers for teams and agents and players, and they have everybody on their little dials, and they take stories, or hold back stories, based on what they can do to massage the needs of their [sources].”

That’s true, and in most cases, that’s OK. Wojnarowski’s job is to break news — scoops! — on transactions. Horse-trading is part of the beat.

But the matter becomes more complicated when dealing with issues of sexual misconduct. Wojnarowski’s misrepresentation of the story seemingly drove ESPN’s entire coverage.

Stephen A. Smith was rightfully excoriated last week for deflecting blame from Udoka. As part of his defense, Smith kept saying Udoka’s relationship was “consensual,” even though new reporting said otherwise.

Smith repeated Wojnarowski’s outdated version of events all day Friday, leading to an on-air battle with reporter Malika Andrews, who told him to “stop blaming women.”

While Andrews seemed aware of Charania’s report, she focused most of her ire towards the Celtics for being opaque and people on social media for speculating about the woman’s identity.

Interestingly, Andrews didn’t focus on Udoka. Strauss points out that Andrews is also a CAA client.

The last story on ESPN’s website about the Celtics recaps Media Day and interim head coach Joe Mazzulla’s introduction. The writer, Tim Bontemps, just says that Udoka “violated team rules.” He doesn’t mention anything about a romantic relationship, never mind “unwanted comments.”

The WorldWide Leader seems content to let the biggest story in the NBA fade away, in a sea of uncertainty.

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Reading between the lines on Mac Jones: There could be a disagreement brewing between the Patriots and Mac Jones on how to proceed with his ankle injury. Jones, who’s expected to miss multiple games, is seeking a second opinion.

On Monday, Adam Schefter tweeted that Jones has what “doctors diagnosed as a severe high ankle sprain that would cause many to have surgery, per sources.”

That’s an odd way to present an injury update. In the middle of the tweet, Schefter sneaks in that “many” would have surgery to repair the ankle. Do the Patriots want Jones to have surgery, and he wants to rehab? Schefter is clearly inferring that surgery is the next logical step. That's coming from somebody with an agenda.

Watch this space.

TNF numbers are actually down … slightly: Don’t let the spin fool you. Fewer people are watching “Thursday Night Football” on Amazon than last year.

Chargers-Chiefs was hailed as a ratings success, and it was. More than 13.3 million people tuned into a game that was only available via Prime. But last season, the 10 games simulcast on FOX and NFL Network averaged 14.91 million.

Last week, Browns-Steelers drew 11.03 million viewers.

The NFL probably thinks the slight early downturn in viewers is worth the $1 billion annually it’s receiving from Amazon. And the NFL is probably right. But for now, the fact is, they sacrificed some of their audience for money.

Judge’s death march to No. 61: The Steroid Era rendered all baseball statistical milestones meaningless, and that was before Aaron Judge started his interminable chase of No. 61. Please, no more live cut-ins. I’ll just catch the home run on Twitter.

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