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In Favre and Udoka scandals, some see echoes of sports media’s shortcomings

Social media users have called out disparities in the media coverage of Ime Udoka and Brett Favre.
Image: Ime Udoka, Brett Favre
Ime Udoka, left, and Brett Favre.Charles Krupa/AP; Rob Kim/ Getty Images

News of Ime Udoka’s lengthy suspension from the Boston Celtics has dominated the internet since the NBA franchise announced last week that he had violated team policies. But amid the articles and social media posts about the situation, many are wondering why the head coach’s personal indiscretions are receiving more attention than seemingly larger ethical misdeeds going on in the news cycle, like Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre’s role in the Mississippi welfare scandal

To social media users, the disparity is glaring.

“Can we get more coverage of Brett Favre and less of Ime Udoka,” one person tweeted on Wednesday. Another tweet read, “So ESPN can have Ime Udoka all over the news but hardly talking about Brett Favre that’s  looks and sounds very racist.”

The Celtics have released few details about the circumstances surrounding Udoka’s suspension for the 2022-23 season. But both ESPN and The Athletic reported that Udoka had a consensual “intimate relationship with a female” staffer, which violated the franchise’s code of conduct. Favre, who retired in 2010, is suspected of pressuring Mississippi state officials to spend millions of dollars in federal welfare funds on a volleyball center at the university where his daughter played the sport, and on a football facility. 

Favre has not been  criminally charged, but he is one of more than 35 people and entities named in a civil suit brought by the state. Recently released text messages, from 2017 and 2019, show Favre  urging then-Gov. Phil Bryant and other officials to help secure funding for the sports complex out of funds that were supposed to go to needy families in the state. Bryant has said he didn’t know about the plan, and Favre has said publicly that he did not know the funds were welfare dollars and that he believes he did nothing wrong. On Thursday, retired U.S. women’s soccer star Abby Wambach announced  that she’s cutting ties with a business venture backed by Favre. 

Media reports about the former football star’s involvement in the mismanaged welfare funds started in 2020, but were quickly — and, to some, excessively — overshadowed last week by news of Udoka’s suspension. Amid the discourse about the apparent disparity, some critics have pointed out that the media coverage may be unbalanced because Favre is retired and Udoka is a star coach, having led Boston to the NBA Finals last season, making his situation more newsworthy.

“In the initial coverage of this scandal, it did feel like the Brett Favre story was swept under the rug a little faster than most would like it to be. It came at such an opportune time for this coverage to drown out something way more reprehensible, like stealing from the poor,” said Kazeem Famuyide, co-host of “MSG PM,” shown after home games of the New York Knicks, and creator of the Say Less podcast

“The Udoka story just checks so many boxes of what we deem interesting when covering sports. I can almost understand why it was covered in a different way. This was coming right at the beginning of the NBA season,” Famuyide said. “For people who cover the media, if it doesn’t necessarily affect what’s happening on the field or on the court, they don’t care as much as they probably should. That speaks to the culture that thrives in sports talk.” 

When news of the suspension broke last week, social media users were quick to point out that there was more focus on Udoka than Favre. One person tweeted, “If you are more upset about Ime Udoka and the Celtics situation than Brett Favre STEALING MILLIONS IN WELFARE MONEY FROM THE POOREST PEOPLE IN OUR COUNTRY IN MISSISSIPPI then you are part of the problem.” And another added, “Now that Ime Udoka is officially suspended it would be great if sports media people took that energy and shifted it to covering Brett Favre stealing millions in welfare money from the poorest state in the nation.” 

Along with questions about the circumstances surrounding the Celtics’ decision, reports and social media chatter have also focused on Udoka’s fiancé, Nia Long, questioning why Udoka would be unfaithful to the beloved actress. 

The disparity has also raised questions about whether media outlets cover white athletes and team officials more favorably than Black ones. A 2015 study by the University of Missouri found that in sports media, a field dominated by white men, Black people are more likely than white people to be portrayed in a “negative tone,” with an emphasis on crime. 

“It’s hard to ignore the idea of race being a factor in this situation. And a lot of the blame should be on the Boston Celtics for the premature leaking of this story,” said Raja Rahim, a professor and sports history expert at Appalachian State University. 

The franchise has said it will decide Udoka’s future with the team at a later date. And according to Sports Illustrated, officials have made no guarantee that Udoka will return to the team following his suspension. With that, sports lovers have speculated about whether this scandal will be the end of Udoka’s NBA coaching career. If that is the case, it would be a disappointing close to Udoka’s yearslong journey to becoming a head coach, one characterized by racial dynamics, Rahim said. 

“We can trace this not only in the NBA but the NFL,” Rahim said of the lack of diversity in sports leadership. “This is rooted in pseudo-scientific notions that exist over Black men and their intellectual capabilities and capacity.” 

After his NBA playing career ended, Udoka spent  nine seasons as an assistant coach at San Antonio, Philadelphia and Brooklyn before being named head coach of Boston last year. He noted that Detroit, Cleveland and Indiana had overlooked him when seeking to fill the position, and “that was tough,” he told Yahoo Sports. Udoka’s plight is common among Black candidates seeking head coaching jobs. There are currently 15 Black head coaches in the 30-team NBA, making up half the league for the first time. But this is a record only recently set in the NBA, which didn’t see its first Black head coach until 1963 when the Celtics hired Bill Russell as player-coach.   

“You had to overachieve, or you never got the opportunity again and no one really talked about that,” Andre Iguodala, who plays for the Golden State Warriors, said according to NBC Sports, acknowledging the hardships that Black head coaches face. “Just kind of how the headlines looked, when you portray Black coaches historically, it hasn’t been in a fair light. Where the other side, you had that term ‘the good ol’ boys’ club,’ where you’re just recycling the names over and over again.”

Udoka’s hiring was part of a large push in the league to address a lack of diversity among the NBA’s head coaches following the 2020 George Floyd protests. His suspension comes at a time when Black head basketball coaches, historically neglected and overlooked, are finally seeing substantial opportunities in the NBA. Rahim agreed, noting that Udoka’s achievements are well documented. In his first year with the Celtics, Udoka led the team to its first NBA Finals in 12 years. He’s credited with turning things around for the team after a lackluster start to the season. 

“In this situation, Ime is not absolved of the outcomes because he was in a leadership position and should have known the team policies,” Rahim began. “He literally took a Boston Celtics team that started off rocky to end the season on a great streak. He made it to the NBA Finals in his first season as a head coach.  Now to have an incident like this kind of overshadows what he was hired for. ”

Even Celtics players were shocked by the news of his suspension.

“It’s been hell for us. Just caught by surprise,” Marcus Smart said of the scandal, according to The New York Times. “No one really knows anything, so we’re just in the wind like everybody else. Last couple of days have been confusing.”