The NBA and the Celtics continue to deal with the fallout from the scandal involving suspended Boston head coach Ime Udoka -- while the media, too, has had to face a reckoning over its coverage of the situation.
Most notably, with the Celtics declining to reveal many key details of what exactly happened, journalists and fans have been left to speculate and fill in the gaps regarding what they don't know.
The sports media whiffed on Ime Udoka
A high-profile example of this came when NBA insiders Adrian Wojnarowski and Shams Charania characterized Udoka's relationship with a female underling as "consensual."
This characterization was not corroborated by followup reporting, and in fact a subsequent report by Charania said that Udoka had made "unwanted comments" to the woman in the Celtics organization, an indication of possible sexual harassment.
In any event, the early framing of the Udoka story was dubious from the outset. Wojnarowski and Charania, the reputed scoop-getters, are best known and mostly followed for their seemingly uncanny knack for breaking transaction news.
But according to sports writer Corbin Smith, who recently wrote a compelling opinion piece for The Daily Beast regarding sports media coverage of the Udoka situation, it's no coincidence that Woj and Shams were given the scoop and framed it in such a way for their legion of followers on social media:
"I always feel like calling what they do 'reporting' is generous, a little bit," Smith told host Alex Reimer on Audacy's Sports Media Mayhem podcast. "What they actually do is that they are information brokers for teams, 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 ... and also the needs of their employers. ESPN needs Wojnarowski to seem prestigious. The Athletic needs Shams to seem relevant -- like they've got their finger on the pulse. But this is all just shit that's going to get out. Who's getting drafted where --"
"They're really preempting press releases, a lot of the time," Reimer added.
"Yes. But it isn't just that they're doing press releases. They're helping teams and agents frame things, the way that they want them to get out there. I think it's interesting that Woj is one of the most well-connected people in NBA media, but the person who wrote the story that got the Scarver thing going, was Baxter Holmes, who mostly writes like long-form journalist type stuff, who is actually doing journalism journalism -- not just shuttling around information. And so with this Udoka thing, Woj was like thirsty to frame it as consensual after that. So, 'Put that word out there, and let everybody know -- Udoka didn't do anything bad, he just cheated on his fiancee.'"
Even absent textbook sexual harassment, the very nature of Udoka's outsize influence as Celtics head coach indicates an extreme power imbalance in his relationship with a staffer, Smith explained:
"But the fact of the matter is, in the employment context, a coach who is probably one of the three most powerful people in a given organization, along with the general manager and star player. ... There's an imbalance of power there that makes anything that happens, sexual-encounter wise, problematic -- or possibly fraught with labor problems. Woj and Shams, and all the guys who do this particular dance, they're just completely willing to sort of look past the context for all of that, and just sort of go with what their sources need them to put out there to sort of mitigate the damage that is going to come around from this coming out. Because if Udoka was just cheating on Nia Long with just some person, I think everyone ... would move on. But the second there's an employment thing mixed up into this, it's messier. And Woj was just totally willing to just try to contain it a little bit, on behalf of Udoka, or his agent."
Reimer then pointed out that Wojnarowski and Udoka share the same agent at CAA, and that Woj has a "long history" of "protecting" CAA-affiliated players and coaches.
"We see this all the time -- that these insiders just are not equipped to handle these kinds of stories," Reimer said.
"This is what their employers want from them -- they want scoops," Smith said. "They're not concerned with covering sports, they're concerned with transactionalism."