An ugly side of social media surfaced in the Ime Udoka controversy

While we waited for details to come out, Internet "sleuths" dragged female Celtics employees into the scandal with baseless and disgusting speculation.

Celtics president of basketball operations Brad Stevens (left, with team owner Wyc Grousbeck) became emotional at Friday's press conference. JOHN TLUMACKI/GLOBE STAFF

I swear, people should have to pass some sort of empathy or fundamental human decency test before they’re permitted to use the Internet.

The basketball fallout from the suspension of Celtics coach Ime Udoka is disappointing, sure. It’s impossible to resist wondering, as fans, whether the team’s championship window, which opened in June, is already closing.

But the potential effects on the quest for Banner 18 are minor compared with the infuriating way that this story developed, and how the predictable tsunami of cruel conjecture and salacious speculation in the usual social-media cesspools affected women employed by or affiliated with the franchise.

The story became known Wednesday night, as many NBA stories do, with a blindsiding tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. At 10:35 p.m., he dropped a bomb to his 5.7 million Twitter followers. It read:


ESPN Sources: 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.

The tweet was both stunning and vague enough to ignite rampant speculation. The early-to-bed types either didn’t see it until morning or were awakened by correspondence from others. I was among those snoozing, at least until my daughter, away at college, texted at 10:36, “NOO IME,” and then, ”what’s happening?” followed by 16 more question marks (I counted). I suspect that reaction aligns with how most Celtics fans felt at the moment.

There would be no sleep in the immediate future for Celtics fans who saw Wojnarowski’s tweet live. How could this be? What happened? Why isn’t there more information?

The vagueness of the initial tweet, in the race to be first, led to practically unavoidable speculation about the nature of Udoka’s transgression. Gambling? An altercation? Tampering with Kevin Durant?

More details finally arrived at 12:50 a.m. Thursday when Wojnarowski’s former protégé turned news-breaking rival, Shams Charania of The Athletic and Stadium, tweeted that Udoka had had “an improper intimate and consensual relationship with a female member of the team’s staff.”


At 1:31 a.m., Wojnarowski followed up by reporting that the Celtics’ “internal discussions have included scenarios that would keep Udoka out for the entirety of the 2022-2023 season.” That sparked one obvious question: What’s the difference between something that would warrant a lengthy suspension and one that brought an outright firing?

The Celtics did not offer a comment until 9:22 p.m. Thursday, when the public relations department provided a 46-word statement confirming the suspension and revealing that a decision on Udoka’s future would be made at a later date.

The Celtics public relations department has an excellent reputation and is habitually fair, but the nearly 23-hour gap between Wojnarowski’s first tweet and when the Celtics finally addressed the situation allowed for the festering of the aforementioned infuriating aspect of this.

The speculation and Internet “sleuthing” — essentially looking up the social media accounts of female Celtics employees and claiming with no substantiation that they were involved — was a disgusting and sadly predictable byproduct of the lag between the initial vague report and the later revelation of detail.

NBC Sports Boston’s Amina Smith, the studio host for Celtics programming, addressed this directly and thoughtfully during Thursday’s episode of “Early Edition.”


“Before we get into the nuts and bolts of this story, this has to be addressed,” said Smith. “The public dragging of women in, near, and around the Celtics organization on social media. Ignorant Twitter sleuths copying and pasting pictures, accusing women and harassing them in the comments sections of their pages when no one — absolutely no one — pointing the finger has a clue what is going on or what the details are in this situation.

“As a woman who works in sports, I know how hard it can be to shed stereotypes, break new ground, and find success in this industry. And what’s being done to the women who have worked tirelessly to build their careers and have absolutely no ties to this situation isn’t only wrong, it’s disgusting.”

At Friday afternoon’s news conference alongside team owner Wyc Grousbeck, president of basketball operations Brad Stevens, unflappable in most circumstances, became as emotional as we’ve seen him in his nine years with the franchise when he lamented how this had affected women who work for the Celtics.

“We have a lot of talented women in our organization,” said Stevens, his eyes briefly tearing up. “And I thought yesterday was really hard on them, and I think that nobody can control Twitter speculation and rampant [expletive], but I do think that we as an organization have a responsibility to make sure that we’re there to support them now. Because a lot of people were dragged unfairly into that.”


Dragged into it, and unsure how to get out. One woman affiliated with the Celtics reached out to this address Friday afternoon. She had had photos stolen off her Instagram page and reposted with captions claiming that she was a person tangled up in the Udoka situation. She asked if it was worth saying, by name, that she is not involved, fearing her reputation is being damaged by stupid social media fiction.

After some discussion, I decided not to mention her by name, because any association with this story, even an attempt to clear up something stemming from a lie, could end up being detrimental to her.

I don’t know if that was the right decision. But I do know I will not forget what so many gold-plated losers on social media ignore: that real people have been hurt not just by the Udoka situation, but by the hazy, lousy, gossip-encouraging manner in which we found out about it.


This discussion has ended. Please join elsewhere on Boston.com