Sports Scandal Reports: Not That Independent, Not That Investigative

Efforts like the newly released report on harassment in the NFL is limited in legal power and full of PR speak. But they can still create change in the league.
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Miami Dolphins guard Richie Icognito, center, prior to facing the Arizona Cardinals in an NFL football game in September 2012. (Paul Connors / AP)

Within hours of its release on February 14, various media outlets began dissecting the provocative details from the 144-page Wells Report—an investigation of allegations of widespread harassment and bullying among Miami Dolphins personnel. Author Ted Wells, a lawyer, included verbatim excerpts from text messages exchanged between the two primary players involved, Jonathan Martin and Richie Incognito. Formally titled “Report to the NFL Concerning Issues of Workplace Conduct at the Miami Dolphins,” it portrays pro football's locker-room culture in often-explicit detail—the “F” word (or a derivative thereof) is included 41 times.

The report will, understandably, be discussed for months. Its findings will likely bring about change in workplace policies among teams in the NFL and other sports leagues. But everyone involved would be served to keep in mind what the Wells Report is, and what it is not . In the history of “independent investigations” of sports scandals, none have been truly independent, and all have had serious investigative limitations. But they’ve still served an important function: accountability.

Over the last two and a half decades, top sports executives have routinely tapped the services of well-respected attorneys or former law enforcement personnel to conduct the investigations. Some sports leagues commission reports to proactively address a burgeoning problem; other times, they hire an investigator to preempt any outside investigation by Congress or a government agency.

Below are 10 of the most high-profile post-scandal reports, with counts for select key words (more on that later).

Many of the report names, ascribed to the primary authors, are recognizable to sports fans—Dowd, Mitchell, and Freeh being the most notable. Others are more obscure. The Paul Weiss Report, weighing in at a hefty 469 pages, investigated allegations of nepotism and conflicts of interest involving National Basketball Players Association personnel. The Sidley Austin Report concerned allegations of corruption in soccer governance in North America, Central America, and the Caribbean.

My review of all 10 reports revealed a number of interesting anecdotal observations. For example, the only report not primarily written by an American lawyer was also the shortest—the 66-page Gunn & Rees Report, investigating gambling-related corruption in tennis, was penned by two former British law enforcement officers. Meanwhile, the Pedowitz Report, drafted in the wake of the Tim Donaghy NBA referee betting scandal, used a clever linguistic device in responding to (non-)findings by the FBI regarding whether Donaghy manipulated games for gambling purposes: “Based on our review, and with the information we have available, we are unable to contradict the government’s conclusion.” And the NCAA’s report investigating the activities of a University of Miami booster (the NCAA’s report never actually uses the name “Nevin Shapiro”) is the only report that also gave rise to an ancillary report investigating the credibility and legality of the original investigation. Even more bizarre: The sequel report was released before the original.

Although the word “independent” is used frequently throughout the reports to emphasize the impartial nature of the investigators, the reports are quasi-independent at best. The investigators, after all, are paid by the leagues they’re investigating. The frequent use of “independent” in these reports is the kind of calculation Patrick Hruby described in detail at Sports on Earth when he spotlighted sports leagues’ now-unremarkable habit of borrowing communications strategies from the political sphere.  

The PR language generally works as intended. For example, in virtually every media report about the Wells Report, “independent” was used in its noun, adjective, and adverb forms. The usage started early. When the NFL announced the retention of Ted Wells in November, their short press release was on message, and the Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross repeated the term in his statement last Friday.       

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