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The Atlantic — Sports Scandal Reports: Not that independent, not that investigative

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.

Another shared feature of these scandal reports: The investigators hired to inquire about the various past scandals all were also hamstrung in three distinct ways, differentiating them from governmental law enforcement. First, subjects who voluntarily submitted to questioning as part of the investigation were neither under oath nor strapped to a polygraph machine. There was no perjury charge looming overhead if false or incomplete testimony was proffered. Second, the investigators lacked subpoena power. They were unable to compel anyone to speak or turn over documents, emails, texts, or any other tangible or electronic evidence. Third, the investigators did not have the authority to organically search for certain evidence given laws restricting such activities by private investigators. As a result, the inquiries were handicapped in ways government-authorized investigations are not.