Stephen A. Smith and Malika Andrews had a tense back and forth over the Ime Udoka scandal on “First Take.”
The ESPN talents would eventually land the plane in the segment, but it started with barbs furiously being tossed by both sides.
Andrews, the 27-year-old host of “NBA Today,” called into the show after the Celtics held a press conference on Udoka.
“If I could first start with this: Stephen A., with all due respect, this is not about pointing the finger. Stop,” Andrews said. “What became apparent to me in this press conference is that we do not have all the information here. It was frustrating, to me, that the Celtics declined to elaborate or give more specifics about what exactly the rule-breaking was that led us to this point.”
Andrews said it stood out to her that Brad Stevens was upset with “rampant Twitter bulls–t” that was hurled at women in the Celtics organization on social media this week, and that she found the speculation about women thought to have an affair with Udoka was “gross and unnecessary.” She criticized the Celtics for not giving more details of Udoka’s infractions in the press conference.
“The fact that it was able to go on all day. The fact that we are sitting here debating whether somebody else should be suspended or not. We are not here, Stephen A., to further blame women. That is not why we are here,” Andrews said.
The 54-year-old Smith responded: “First of all. Let me be very clear. I don’t appreciate where you’re going with that. I’m not blaming anybody but Ime Udoka. He deserved to be fired if they were going to fire him. If you’re not going to fire him, then don’t fire him. My issue is all of this being publicized. The point that I’m trying to make…”
Andrews interrupted, and Smith cut her off.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I listened to you. You’re the one telling me to stop on my show. It ain’t happening. Okay? That’s number 1. Number 2, I’ve already said, he deserves to be fired, or to be there and for them to handle it privately. If you’re not going to handle it privately, to publicize it in that fashion, then obviously it provokes everybody wanting to know okay, who are the parties involved?”
The crux of the misunderstanding involves what has been reported by ESPN and what has been reported elsewhere. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski has reported that Udoka conducted a “consensual affair” with a woman in the organization. Shams Charania reported in The Athletic that Udoka was also accused of making “unwanted comments” towards the woman.
ESPN has yet to report details about those allegations. In similar situations in the past, ESPN PR has said that they will not rely on the reporting of other news organizations involving sensitive information.
Smith’s commentary on “First Take” Thursday and Friday has stemmed from the reporting that Udoka had a consensual affair. He has not excused Udoka and has repeatedly said that the coach made an error in judgment, but at the same time has also said that workplace affairs happen all over professional sports and has brought up an alleged imbalance in how it is handled for people who are black (like Udoka) versus white.
Smith has accused the Celtics of leaking that Udoka had an affair. Celtics owner Wyc Grousbeck vehemently denied these claims in a press conference on Friday.
Smith’s overarching point is that Udoka should have been retained or fired. The year-long suspension by the Celtics while they squat on his contract rights and reserve the right to make a decision on his employment at a later date is improper.
“Considering how pervasive this stuff has existed in professional sports for many years,” Smith said to Andrews, meaning consensual affairs, “my whole point is that make sure that you handle it in the same fashion it’s always been handled. You could’ve fired him and then we could’ve speculated until the cows come home, but he’s gone. But to keep him there, but suspend him for a year, then that year is indefinite, that’s the issue I have.
“Nobody’s trying to protect Ime Udoka and certainly nobody is trying to excoriate the women involved. I’m talking about how things of this matter are usually handled from an HR perspective, from an organizational perspective. That is not consistent with what we have seen throughout the years. I’m not trying to attack anybody, and if anybody deserves to be attacked it’s Ime Udoka for putting himself in this position.”
Andrews responded, “I appreciate that clarification. And I think that getting back to Molly [Qerim]’s initial question. My reaction to the press conference is the only thing that was made clear to me is that we are missing key pieces of information. That is my reaction.”
Qerim asked what she was referring to by that.
Andrews said that, if she had been at the press conference, her question would have been, “You are not helping the women who you want to protect that you are claiming the organization needs to look inward at with your business. Women need transparency. In the spirit of the transparency, was there sexual harassment that you needed to address within your organization?”
At the press conference, Grousbeck sidestepped a direct question on if there was sexual harassment levied by Udoka, but called the coach’s suspension “well-warranted” and “backed by substantial research and evidence and fact.”