OPINION: Stereotypes about women in sports still exist, Ime Udoka’s suspension is proof

Photo retrieved from NBA.com

By Vishakha Deshpande

Boston University News Service 

Ime Udoka’s suspension from the 2022-23 season for an improper yet consensual relationship with a female staffer at the Boston Celtics cast a light on the incessant trolling multiple women at the organization faced on social media

Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck made it very clear in a press conference that neither he nor Brad Stevens, President of Basketball Operations, would divulge any details about Udoka’s suspension or any other members involved in the matter. 

“I have to break it to you that if you have the notes in front of you, you wouldn’t learn all that much so it’s sort of that type of press conference,” Grousbeck said.

The secrecy, which comes from a place of legality and trying to keep the female staffer safe, pushed social media to start guessing names. Women workers at the Celtics organization were blatantly trolled. 

“We have a lot of talented women in our organization and I thought yesterday was hard on them…We have a responsibility in our organization to support them since a lot of people unfairly were dragged into that,” Stevens said. 

Amanda Pflugra, a sideline reporter at the Celtics, wrote in a tweet that experiencing this backlash as a female employee at the organization was “heartbreaking.”

She wrote in the tweet that “seeing uninvolved people’s names thrown around in the media, including mine, with such carelessness is disgusting. This is a step backward for women in sports who have worked hard to prove themselves in an industry they deserve to be in.”

While Stevens choking up on national television might say a lot about the impact Udoka’s situation has had on the organization as a whole, it begs an important question: What is not being shared with the public?

Ex-NBA player Matt Barnes has dropped massive hints about the murkiness of the situation. While he started by defending Udoka’s “consensual affair” on social media, he pulled a 180-degree the next day by deleting his reaction and saying that the whole situation was a “hundred times uglier” than what he had imagined it to be.

The New York Post reported that Barnes spoke about the matter at length on “Vlad TV.” 

“But, like I heard it’s not about what he did, it’s about who he did it [with] that is really going to kind of flip the game upside down when it comes to this instance,” Barnes said. “This is not something that’s only the NBA. This happens in the workplace all around. But like I said, it’s not so much the act.” 

If experts, fans and the NBA community are perplexed about the issue, and so are the players. Stevens’ specified that the players were informed of the situation and are upset with how it all unfolded. But they tend to stay “future-focused.” 

“It’s just an unfortunate situation,” said Jayson Tatum on Celtics media day. “All things considered, nobody expected this coming into the season. We were all caught off-guard by everything. But we gotta try to move forward and play basketball.”

Stephen A. Smith, ESPN’s First Take’s host and sports analyst wasted no time in pointing out that the Celtics were creating an air of suspicion by suspending Udoka for a year rather than firing him altogether. 

“I’m appalled by this decision,” he said. “If you’re not gonna fire him, he shouldn’t be suspended. You can dock his pay. You can fine him. You can keep the stuff in-house. I’m appalled this is publicized. I know of plenty of situations spanning the entire world of professional sports where folks are messing around with each other. You don’t see this become a story. This was leaked by the Boston Celtics organization.”

While Smith’s stance was to keep this whole matter “private and internal,” he failed to see the intricacies of power and sex in it. The very fact that the Celtics chose to suspend Udoka and are keeping the situation under wraps, shows that the issue is far more cavernous than it may seem.

Lauren Hindman, assistant professor of sport management at Stonehill College, said in an interview that Udoka’s suspension and the subsequent wrath of social media gave fuel to the fire that burned with stereotypes regarding women in professional sports.

“One thing that women face working in sport that I’ve found in my research is an assumption that they are working in sport because they want to sleep with the players — or in this case, a coach,” Hindman said in an interview for Greater Boston, GBH. “And that’s not true, but it’s something they have to face in their workplace, and now they were having to face it on Twitter, out in the open [in] public,”

While it is quite common for women to be thrown under the bus in light of such stereotypes, Udoka’s situation is pretty rare. The term “consensual” has drawn a distinct line between workplace relationships and workplace harassment. 

While the Celtics continue to stay tight-lipped about this matter, it opened up doors for conversations about workplace relationships in professional sports. In addition, how women will still be subject to stereotypical trolling and online harassment in the years to come. 

Coming into the 2022-23 season, the Boston Celtics had all the ingredients for a championship recipe: rising stars, team bonding, a historic franchise with over-the-top passionate fans, organizational backing and a coach with consistency and stability. 

But, with a new coach (Joe Mazzulla) again, the Celtics are looking to re-group, re-build and dive into the new season, hurting but hopeful.

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