Celtics Year-Long Ban of Udoka Draws Work Misconduct into NBA Spotlight

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The Boston Celtics on Thursday suspended head coach Ime Udoka for the entire 2022-23 season for multiple “violations” of unspecified “team policies.” In a short statement, the team gave no assurance that Udoka, 45, would return after the season, saying instead “a decision about his future with the Celtics beyond this season will be made at a later date.”

The statement omitted further explanation for the suspension, but the Celtics reportedly believe that Udoka violated the team’s workplace guidelines concerning intimate relationships. Udoka, who is engaged to actress Nia Long, allegedly had what is described as a consensual, but improper, relationship with a woman who holds an unspecified position with the team. Assistant coach Joe Mazzulla is expected to become interim head coach.

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A year-long suspension is an extremely unusual and, short of termination, severe disciplinary response by an NBA team. It is suggestive the allegations go beyond a workplace romance and might be designed in part to convince Udoka to quit or to supply time for the two sides to negotiate a buyout.

To that point, the Celtics want to send a clear signal that they take workplace controversies seriously and have acted responsibly since they became aware of the relationship. The team has likely conducted substantial due diligence in terms of interviewing persons involved and witnesses—such as players and coaches—and reviewed emails sent on the team server. The team is no doubt mindful of the risk of litigation, possibly involving Udoka or the other employee.

At the same time, the Celtics do not apparently view Udoka’s actions as warranting dismissal—at least not yet.

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Like other industries, pro sports teams’ workplace rules normally prohibit employees from engaging in behavior during working time and in working areas that interfere with their duties or create an uncomfortable environment for co-workers or customers. Employers ordinarily recognize that two workers might become friends or romantically involved. Those workers are expected to keep their personal relationship outside the boundary of their work life.

Intimate relationships involving employees in supervisory or managerial positions, such as a head coach, are scrutinized at a higher level. The subordinate’s consent can be harder to assess if that person also has a duty to follow the supervisor’s directives. It is unknown at this time if the female employee reported to Udoka or received assignments from him. While Udoka’s relationship has been described in media reports as consensual, neither the team nor those involved have publicly addressed the relationship, including whether it still continues. If the other employee felt in any way pressured, or if she believed her performance evaluations were impacted, she could explore harassment and discrimination litigation.

Co-workers in a relationship are also expected to inform human resources staff and work with them on setting appropriate boundaries. That is an important point in terms of how the Celtics learned about the relationship. An employee can additionally run afoul of company rules by lying or misleading a boss or owner about the relationship.

Udoka’s employment contract is also a relevant factor. Coaches’ contracts contain “cause” provisions wherein if the employee commits a serious transgression, the team can fire the coach without the obligation to pay him or her going forward. Coaches who are fired with cause can challenge that designation in court, though many contracts also contain mandatory arbitration or mediation (or both) provisions that keep disputes out of court. The team suspending Udoka, rather than firing him with cause, is less likely to trigger a legal aftermath.

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The team might also reason that Udoka, who last season led the Celtics to the NBA Finals in his first year as head coach, could quit instead of serving the suspension and gamble that another team would hire him. Udoka stepping aside would also decrease the legal risk for the Celtics that Udoka would later sue. However, Udoka might argue that an abnormally long suspension constitutes “constructive dismissal” in that it is so uniquely onerous that it might be a ploy to urge Udoka to quit.

The Celtics’ conduct regarding the controversy could also become important, particularly if the team should have taken more preventative steps. Employers often use the practice of progressive discipline to handle workplace misconduct matters, especially with employees’ who have a contract (like Udoka) rather than at-will. Progressive discipline means the employee is initially warned or lightly punished, such as being sent home for the day, and told they must improve their performance or else they face an unpaid suspension or firing. This not only allows the employee a chance to remedy the situation but the employer, mindful the contracted employer might later sue for breach, also appears more reasonable than rushing to fire. It’s unknown if the Celtics warned Udoka to stop before resorting to a lengthy suspension.

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Udoka might have contractual and legal remedies if he contests the Celtics’ punishment, the team’s claimed findings or both. He could sue breach of contract, defamation or other claims, unless he is required to resolve any disputes through arbitration or mediation. Udoka could also draw on the advocacy of the National Basketball Coaches Association, a labor/trade group which represents many NBA coaches in employment disputes and other business interests.

Udoka is the latest NBA team executive to be severely disciplined or fired amid allegations of workplace misconduct. Earlier this week, Phoenix Suns managing Robert Sarver this week agreed to sell the team after findings he engaged in improper workplace conduct. Last December the Portland Trailblazers fired general manager Neil Oshey amid allegations he intimidated staff. A few months earlier, the Minnesota Timberwolves let go of general manager president of basketball operations Gersson Rosas, who was linked to an improper relationship with a member of the organization.

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