Former 49ers owner DeBartolo deserves consideration for Hall
There he is, right where some predicted he never would be.
Eddie DeBartolo Jr., former owner of the 49ers, is on the list of semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"I'm flabbergasted," DeBartolo said Tuesday from his office in Tampa. "And quite honored. I didn't expect it."
There was a time not so long ago when many believed that DeBartolo would never get close to the Hall of Fame. The man who regularly shows up in Canton to give the introduction speech to one or another of the Hall of Fame players he helped produce, was expected to be shunned.
But voting for sports honors is an unpredictable business. The standards shift daily, the outrage dies down over time, the question of what behavior is relevant and what is ancillary becomes harder to define.
If you have a Heisman vote, do you give it to Cam Newton even though he could be stripped of the award later? If you're a voting member of the Baseball Writers' do you hold your nose and vote to enshrine suspected steroid cheats? The voters for Canton have overlooked transgressions -- criminal and otherwise -- in the past.
DeBartolo was -- by any standard -- one of the landmark owners in NFL history. He was the man behind the NFL's most concentrated dynasty: five Super Bowl championships in 14 years. He set the modern day standard for travel, facilities, and compensation. He hired the transcendent Bill Walsh. His players loved him. Other players wanted to play for him.
And he created a winning environment. This year's version of the 49ers has struggled to get four sad wins by December. Starting with the season of his team's first Super Bowl victory, DeBartolo's 49ers won 10 or more games every year, aside from one, the strike-shortened 1982 season.
His success irritated other owners. He was considered the NFL's version of George Steinbrenner (under consideration this year by the Baseball Hall of Fame veterans committee) spending lavishly in the pre-salary cap era. He created a climate that his peers viewed as unfair and unmatchable. DeBartolo stockpiled greats: at one point he had three Pro Bowl nose tackles. His largess produced back-to-back Hall of Fame quarterbacks. The salary cap was as much a direct reaction to DeBartolo as it was to anything else.
For that alone, he's worthy of the Hall of Fame.
But it seemed like a longshot. DeBartolo was suspended from the league by then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue for his role in a Louisiana racketeering scandal, in which DeBartolo pleaded guilty to failing to report a felony. DeBartolo was forced to give up his ownership of the 49ers, swapping assets with his sister Denise DeBartolo York, who took over the team. Later revelations of team salary cap violations only furthered the belief of some other owners that DeBartolo wasn't playing by the same rulebook.
For a time, DeBartolo was viewed as a pariah around the league. But no longer. There's speculation about whether he would buy another NFL team -- he says he's not interested (though certainly has enough money after coming out of settlement with his sister in fine shape). He's willing to advise his nephew Jed York, the acting owner of the 49ers. The team inducted him into its own Hall of Fame last year.
And his players continually lobby for his induction into Canton. Jerry Rice brought it up in his speech last summer.
"Just like he did after every game, Eddie has greeted players like Joe Montana, Steve Young, Fred Dean and me in Canton, Ohio," Rice said. "He deserves to be standing with us as a member of the Pro Football Hall of fame."
DeBartolo -- who hopes to see former 49ers Roger Craig, Charles Haley and Deion Sanders inducted --thinks that Rice's speech had some influence, as have the words of Montana, Ronnie Lott and others.
"And time helps," said DeBartolo.
A decade after his last involvement in the league, DeBartolo's record of success and achievement is what is remembered.
The other owners aren't the ones voting. The selection committee is made up of football writers from around the country, who have watched the game change and evolve year by year. Their grudges don't last as long, their level of outrage over indiscretions is usually on a timer, they give contributions to the game and legacy more weight than off field behavior.
The Hall of Fame is there to honor those who have made outstanding contributions to football, which is pretty subjective criteria. There are plenty of football fans in Cleveland who would be outraged if Art Modell was elected. But he's on the ballot, year after year.
Tagliabue is on the list too. He and DeBartolo could potentially be enshrined together.
The cut down from the current list is in January. Even if DeBartolo doesn't make it this time, he's finally in the discussion. Where he deserves to be.