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Media Meltdowns

The Ime Udoka Suspension Tied Stephen A. Smith’s Brain In Knots

Screenshot: ESPN

The Celtics held a press conference Friday morning to address head coach Ime Udoka’s season-long suspension for “violations of team policies.” ESPN carried it during the First Take time slot, which meant that once the press conference was over, the network could return to an enraged-looking Stephen A. Smith. You could see him trying not to explode as host Molly Qerim took a few seconds to recap the press conference and introduce the segment. Finally, he got his chance to speak. “I didn’t think coming into this show that I could get more furious,” he said. “But I am.”

This story’s hot takes-to-known facts ratio has felt wildly off. Neither team president Brad Stevens nor owner Wyc Grousbeck was keen to offer much information in the press conference. In between the time Smith declared the suspension “utter BULLSHIT” in his Thursday night tweet previewing the next day’s First Take episode and his actual comments on the show after the press conference, the details of the story had changed somewhat. Shams Charania and Adrian Wojnarowski reported initially—and conspicuously; it was the only actual detail they had—that Udoka’s relationship was a “consensual” affair. But neither Stevens nor Grousbeck said anything about it being consensual. Wojnarowski did call the relationship “consensual” in his initial tweet, but an ESPN story he wrote only calls it an “intimate relationship.” Last night, Charania walked back his earlier characterization in a story for The Athletic. “At that time, team leadership was led to believe by both parties that the relationship was consensual,” he 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.”

So Smith was very angry, but there is so little to grasp onto here that he didn’t seem to know what he was angry about. He spent the rest of the show hovering around several arguments without ever landing on one. All were founded on the now-disputed idea that the relationship was consensual.

His point, as best I could understand, was that this sort of thing (not that anyone knows what thing it is!) happens often in professional sports and just gets swept under the rug. Smith didn’t defend Udoka; he called the coach’s behavior “inexcusable” and “a fireable offense.” But rather than suspend Udoka and leave him in limbo with a damaged reputation, Smith said, the Celtics should have either quietly fired him or quietly kept him as head coach if they didn’t think whatever he did merits firing him. He’s not wrong to point out the central mystery of the saga: What could be so severe as to warrant a one-year suspension but not severe enough to fire him?

Unfortunately, though, Smith is also totally incapable of making a delicate point. Just as quickly as he stumbled into insight, he veered into offense: “It said, in the numerous news reports, it was a consensual relationship that violated organizational policy. So only he is in violation of company policy? The woman who elected to have a consensual relationship with him is not in violation?” ESPN reporter Malika Andrews joined the show right after he said this and heroically told Smith, “Stop.”

Smith snapped at Andrews for “telling me to stop on my show,” and insisted that he was not blaming women but instead meant that the Celtics shouldn’t have made any part of the story public. There are some obvious issues with this solution. As Andrews points out—or attempts to point out, while Stephen A. talks over her—people would surely notice if Udoka were fired for no given reason, months after leading the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first season as head coach. What Stephen A. is proposing here would amount to greatest exercise of collective discretion in sports history. But having watching First Take, it is indeed nice to imagine a world where no one talked.