The Age Of Internal Investigations in Professional Sports
Though sports games are regulated by rulebooks and referees, in the face of various scandals, the sports industry has shown that it lacks a standard playbook for handling internal issues involving players, coaches, owners, and other staff members. Since 2017, “the volume and frequency of investigations, inquiries and reviews carried out by or on behalf of sports bodies has continued to increase,” ranging “across a wide spectrum of sports of all sizes, both nationally and internationally, concerning issues such as athlete welfare, betting and integrity, safeguarding, anti-doping, discrimination, governance and commercial transactions.” However, these investigations are generally executed under no set guidelines or standards. And where there is vagueness, a lack of transparency follows.
In 2021, two of the biggest sports scandals sprung from issues revealed in the Washington Football Team and the Chicago Blackhawks organizations. “In July, the NFL fined Washington $10 million after its yearlong investigation into the rampant culture of sexual harassment perpetuated by managers and executives at the club under the ownership of Daniel Snyder.” A few months later, Raiders head coach Jon Gruden resigned after emails discovered in the investigation revealed “homophobic and misogynistic remarks,” which had “casually and frequently” been sent to the Washington Football Team’s then-president Bruce Allen, among others. Gruden’s damning emails were among the more than 650,000 examined during the investigation. However, despite outcry from fans and players alike, the league refuses to release the full findings of the investigation, with NFL commissioner Roger Goodell claiming “the anonymity of the people who cooperated with the investigation [is] too high a priority to allow the league to do so.”
In October, the Blackhawks were fined $2 million, and general manager Stan Bowman and senior director of hockey administration Al MacIsaac stepped down following the release of an investigation report detailing how “senior staffers failed to take immediate action against a former video coach who sexually assaulted a player in 2010.” Unlike the NFL’s investigation into the Washington Football Team, the 107-page report from Chicago firm Jenner & Block, LLP was made available to the public. The firm had been hired in late June “to conduct an independent investigation,” after the May 7 filing of a lawsuit by former player Kyle Beach, who came forward as the John Doe of the sexual assault allegations. Shortly after the investigation, the NHL and its commissioner Gary Bettman came under fire, first for the amount of the $2 million fine, which was “a less severe punishment than some NHL teams have received for violating salary-cap or draft-combine rules”, and for not taking action to suspend or prevent former-Blackhawks head coach Joel Quenneville from continuing to coach the Florida Panthers before meeting with the league to discuss his role in the Blackhawks scandal.
Both investigations resulted in consequences in the form of fines and resignations, but neither one left the sports industry satisfied with the level of justice completed, and instead left fans, the media and players demanding more answers. Outcry extended from both the NFL and NHL’s Players’ Associations. On October 15, DeMaurice Smith, the Executive Director of the NFLPA tweeted:
In the NHL, players “[sought] answers from the NHLPA on its role and how the union could have better supported Beach,” following his report of sexual assault in 2010. The NHLPA executive board “voted in favor of conducting an independent review into the union’s response to the sexual assault allegations,” a step which could potentially render further consequences, both for the league and for longtime NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr, who was in the same position when the allegations were allegedly reported to him in 2010. 
Sports will always exist and operate in the intersection of entertainment and big business, and therefore it is doubtful that the industry will ever rid itself of scandals entirely. But moving forward, how can accountability be established? Dr. Eddie T.C. Lam notes that “organizations should be accountable to the public and to their stakeholders, and to those who will be affected by its decisions or actions…accountability cannot be enforced without transparency.” in the sports world, players’ associations are unique stakeholders that possess the power to drive change, pushing for fairer and more transparent investigations regarding the issues that arise in the industry. Only time will tell if the industry’s players’ associations will continue to use their voices and power to enhance their leagues’ investigative processes.
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