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With the Celtics and Udoka, it’s about brand

The Boston Globe 9/26/2022 Joan Vennochi
Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka and Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora. © Photo illustration/Globe staff; Terrance Williams/Darren Abate/AP Boston Celtics coach Ime Udoka and Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

What’s worse? Cheating on the game or cheating on your fiancee, allegedly with a member of your team’s organization?

Given what happened to Ime Udoka, that’s easy to answer. The Boston Celtics suspended their head coach for one year for “violations of team policies.” The Athletic initially reported that Udoka had an improper but consensual relationship with a female member of the team’s front office. A follow-up report suggested a nonconsensual relationship. The specific facts of what Udoka did and with whom remain a mystery to the general public, although there’s lots of online chatter about both. Yet even with all that conflicting information, there’s widespread speculation that Udoka, who was in a longtime relationship with actress Nia Long, will never coach the Celtics again — and might never again coach any NBA team.

Meanwhile, Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora is still coaching after a one-year suspension in 2020 following his involvement in a sign-stealing scandal that happened in 2017 when he was a bench coach for the Houston Astros. The trajectory of his discipline is different from Udoka’s. Cora was fired by the Red Sox in January 2020 and then suspended for one season by MLB for what happened with the Astros. Then he was rehired by the Sox. Why? At least partly because Cora’s transgression was about “the internal dynamics of the sport,” says Shawn Klein, a lecturer on philosophy and sports ethics at Arizona State University and author of “The Sports Ethicist” blog. The allegations about Udoka, he says, are about “violations of company policy that could include sexual harassment, which are substantially serious charges.” In other words, the integrity of the game is not as important as the integrity of the corporate interests that run the game.

That does say something about where we are today as a society and what’s valued on and off the field. It’s all about brand and what is most likely to hurt it. It makes the morality beat in sports especially hard to cover as there’s no consistency as to what’s considered too bad to keep someone out of the front office, off the playing field, or unworthy of great honor. Not to beat up on the Red Sox — who share ownership with the Boston Globe — but former Red Sox slugger David Ortiz made the Hall of Fame despite testing positive for a performance enhancing drug in 2003, before Major League Baseball implemented a formal testing program. Other players accused of steroid use have not. The Ortiz brand remained strong enough to weather the controversy, and the Sox stuck with him.

If today’s sports world seems to lurch from scandal to scandal, it’s because coverage of personal scandal in that world is still relatively new. “The media didn’t report on the affairs players might be having, or other extracurricular activities,” says Klein. “In the last 25 years, probably with the growth of the internet, there’s much more focus on sports and entertainment, and maybe an overcompensation where some individuals are held to account more, because they are in the public light.”

Cultural movements like #MeToo are greatly influencing today’s media coverage. That, too, has put the spotlight more on sexual transgressions than in past eras, says Klein, when ethics were more about staying true to the game. Managers and owners are also coming under increased scrutiny.

The NBA suspended Robert Sarver, the majority owner of the Phoenix Suns, for one year and fined him $10 million after an investigation into a sexist and racist workplace culture. He subsequently announced plans to sell the team, saying “in our current unforgiving climate” there was no place for redemption and “whatever good I have done or could still do, is outweighed by things I have said in the past.” He apparently decided on his own the team brand was better off without him.

Udoka’s professional future — and brand — depends on what further details emerge about his tenure with the Celtics. Meanwhile, Joe Mazzulla is the Celtics new interim head coach. In 2009, while he was playing basketball for West Virginia University, Mazzulla was arrested on a domestic violence charge after he allegedly grabbed a woman by her neck at a bar. The case was settled out of court, according to ESPN. As a college student, Mazzulla also faced other charges, including underage drinking and aggravated assault on a police officer. But Brad Stevens, president of basketball operations for the Celtics, says he personally vetted Mazzulla when he hired him in 2019 and strongly believes “in Joe’s substantiveness as a person.”

Whatever happened more than a decade ago with Mazzulla won’t hurt the Celtics brand — or so the Celtics hope.

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