Skip to main content

Hall of Fame process could be better, but it will never be perfect

I got a tweet the other day from a reader who asked me to defend taking part in a "corrupt'' process. Jason Whitlock, writing for FOXSports.com, called me the "speaker of the house" in a "textbook, good-ol'-boys network'' and said the selection committee violates "nearly everything that we as journalists stand for.'' Fans of Cris Carter, Andre Reed and Charles Haley, who weren't voted in, have e-mailed and tweeted with particular vitriol. "Resign, King!'' one e-mailer railed. "If you don't know Cris Carter is a Hall of Famer, you have no business voting for the Hall of Fame.''

We're considered to be idiots for putting in Chris Hanburger, totally out of touch for enshrining an old geezer, Ed Sabol, who never played the game, and shouldn't be voting for football immortality because so many of us have never played the game. And so on.

The process has always been an exercise in intensity, both inside the room and out. The 44 voters are passing judgment on what could be the last truly important thing in a former player's or coach's life, and so I appreciate the importance of our job. I also appreciate the interest people inside the business and outside have in the process.

The best way to address the criticism is to go through the issues, one by one, that have come up in the nine days since we sat in a Dallas meeting room for seven hours and 28 minutes, picking the seven-man class of 2011.

SECRECY. The Hall appoints each selector -- 32 representing each NFL franchise, and 12 at-large voters picked for their overall knowledge of the game. We are asked to abide by the Hall's selection criteria, which includes taking into account, only in the case of players, what a player did on the field; and in the case of coaches or contributors, only what they did on and around the game that influenced the game.

We're asked to keep the subject and intensity of the discussions out of the press when we leave the room. I'm often asked why. I'll give you a totally fictitious example. Let's say the Dallas representative, Rick Gosselin, is asked to give his case, pro or con, for Larry Allen when the longtime Cowboys guard comes up for a vote in 2013. And let's say Gosselin presents the case for Allen well, but lets it be known he doesn't think he's as strong an offensive-line candidate as, say, Dermontti Dawson or Willie Roaf.

It's not fair for Gosselin to walk into Cowboys offices, having to cover the team (which he does occasionally, but not as a beat man) and team officials not cooperating with him fully because he's not pro-Allen. That's just an example, but the Hall feels, and I agree, that if our discussions are quoted or characterized outside the room other than in saying that so-and-so gave a great presentation for a particular candidate, the honesty of the discussion in the room could be compromised.

Now, the Hall requests, but does not mandate, that we not say who we voted for during the meeting. I believe the 44 votes should be a matter of public record. I feel we should say who we supported, because the fan interest is so high and because transparency in the vote should be expected of us. Many of my peers disagree with me on this, but I think if we're not willing to put our name to our vote, then we shouldn't be on the committee.

I had one TV-loving NFL owner a couple of years ago tell me how cool it would be to have the Hall deliberations on live TV, on NFL Network. This, in my opinion, would be a disaster. If everything we say in the room can be quoted in the outside world (and what a boring set of quotes that would be, mostly), I'm convinced it would paralyze real debate and make it way too stilted. The key is to promote honest debate, not staged debate.

"CORRUPTION'' OF THE PROCESS. I think Whitlock's column must have stirred the masses, because I checked my e-mail and Twitter feed when I rejoined civilization Saturday and saw that I was being accused of being corrupt and deceitful about the Hall process. Be careful, people. Corruption is defined as a willingness to act dishonestly in return for money or personal gain. (Whitlock didn't use the word, but he said we "profit'' from being on the committee, and keep our "personal biases'' hidden.)

For the record: I have never been offered anything, financial or otherwise, to vote for any Hall candidate. I have never had another voter say to me, "If you vote for my guy, I'll vote for your guy.'' I have had voters say to me, "I know you have voted against this candidate before, but I just ask you to come back one more time and look at his case again.'' It happened when Len Shapiro, formerly of the Washington Post, asked me to reconsider Art Monk, which I did because he made a good point -- all the good points about leadership and on-field example-setting I made about Harry Carson with the Giants, Art Monk did with the Redskins.

And, yes, I have biases, if that's what you call strong feelings about people being candidates or not. We all do. I covered the Giants for four years when they had the best run defense in football, and I pushed Harry Carson hard, and he finally got in five years ago. At the same time, I am not a George Young supporter; not that I feel he wasn't an excellent general manager, but if we're going to put a GM in, I'd start with Ron Wolf and then Bill Polian.

THE QUALIFICATIONS OF THE SELECTORS. I am not opposed to the committee being expanded. Not at all. But at some point, if you want the process to be somewhat the same as it is now -- discussion and/or arguments about the candidates -- I don't know how much bigger the pool can be. I'd love to see, say, a few more nationally respected people in the room, like widely read Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

Some of those in the room have more experience covering the game and watching the game than others. But I still think it's valuable to have each franchise represented, even if the selector from that franchise isn't a veteran football writer or broadcaster. If we start eliminating selectors because some haven't been around the game for 20 years, I think we're setting a bad precedent, because then the franchise won't get the same attention for its candidates than the veteran selectors can give. You just have to let some green selectors grow into the job. This brings us to ...

THE BOARD OF SELECTORS. Lots of people want to expand the process. That is OK with me, but it's not going to solve the problem of who gets in and who doesn't. Just because you add more voters doesn't mean that the percentage for enshrinement (80 percent) is going to change.

I'm not a fan of including former players as voters. Many former players could be counted on to give a totally dispassionate view of teammates and foes alike. But a few years ago, I remember a current Hall of Famer arguing passionately for a former opponent NOT in the Hall, and then we found out during the meeting that the two men are in business outside of football together.

Scroll to Continue

SI Recommends

Let's say we decide to put one player or coach from each franchise on the committee. (Because you simply can't put a former Steeler on and not include a former Brown.) That would add 32 voters, making it a 76-person panel. Could the selection meeting be held in one day with 76 voters arguing their cases? I think the meeting might be better, but there's no guarantee it would be. It also might be more partisan.

I wouldn't decry adding 32 former players and coaches, but for all those who think it'd be nirvana and fix everything that ails the process, I don't see it. And for those who want the media out of it altogether, there's some merit there, because none of us played in the NFL, and, in fact, very few of us played beyond high school. But I want to know if Joe Cowboy is going to put in the work that Gosselin does, or if the former player is just going to show up, test the waters and vote the way his peers want him to vote.

THE VOLUME OF CANDIDATES. If we put in everyone the fans (and many media) wanted to be in, the Hall would be increased by 200 people tomorrow. Raider fans are adamant about Ray Guy, Tom Flores, Lester Hayes, Jim Plunkett and Cliff Branch. After the Hall put in three Broncos in the last four classes, I got at least five angry tweets from Denver fans about how Randy Gradishar, Karl Mecklenburg, Steve Atwater and Terrell Davis were all getting jobbed. That's only two teams, and nine guys getting the shaft.

It should be hard to get into the Hall. I think seven enshrinees in one year is plenty. I've asked people over the years to take the 15-man ballot and tell me which 10 don't belong in the Hall. Very, very rarely can people honestly pick 10. And that's the problem. Almost every year I've ever voted, after we get through the debate and have to winnow the class from 15 to 10 on the first cutdown of the day, I have looked at the ballot and said, "If any of these 10 or 11 get to the final five, I'd vote for them.''

REGIONALISM. Whitlock said in his column that he would cry if Roaf, a tackle he covered for several years as a columnist in Kansas City, didn't get elected this year. I've found that to be a common trait over the years: Local columnists get passionate about local guys. It wasn't the Denver Post guy, or the Miami Herald voter, who pushed the Art Monk candidacy so hard. It was the Washington Post guy. Is it more of a travesty that Roaf wasn't a first-ballot Hall of Famer, or that a man with 1,101 catches (Carter) has now missed four times? Or that Dawson -- who was first-team All-Pro more than any other center (six times) in the last 50 years, and double the times Roaf was first-team All-Pro -- can't get in? Pick your travesty. I suspect if Whitlock had worked for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette instead of the Kansas City Star, he'd be decrying the Dawson snub, not Roaf's.

RACISM. The only thing that angered me about Whitlock's column is when he followed his skewering of the Hall selection committee because it has three black voters (a fourth, Michael Wilbon, left the panel when he began covering the NBA a few years ago) in the next sentence by saying two white men -- me and Gosselin -- lead an "old-school, good-ol'-boys network'' in the selection room. If he finds me racist, I wish he'd just call me racist.

Now, as for the three-out-of-44 argument, it's valid ... to a point. In an ideal world, there'd be a lot more than seven percent black voting members in the Hall. But let's look at the pool these voters come from. The Hall takes its voters from NFL press boxes, and I'd guess (it'd just be a guess, but I'm probably not far off) that the NFL's main press box at the Super Bowl was no more than 10 percent black. And is there some great injustice we've perpetrated that can be linked to racism? Four of the last 19 modern-era enshrinees are white.

Now, as for my power in the room, I hope I'm looked at respectfully, and I try to make good arguments. But if I was so powerful, wouldn't I have gotten Paul Tagliabue in once in three tries? Couldn't I have swayed the room on Cris Carter? In fact, both men have gone in reverse since I began to vehemently support them. Tagliabue didn't even make the final 15 this year, and Carter didn't make the cut from 15 to 10 this year.

As always, comments welcome.

***

Why labor hope is scarce, but it shouldn't have flown out the window.

My 7,000-word SI bio-story on NFL commissioner Roger Goodell either got lost in the fog of the Super Bowl or bored you all to tears, because not many of you have responded to me about it. But there are three passages I'd like to share with you from the story. With the frustrations of last week's canceled negotiating session between players and owners (canceled by the owners) and then Goodell calling off this week's monthly owners meeting in Philadelphia to discuss the state of the talks, I understand why most of you would be having feelings of doom about the 2011 season right now.

In the past few days, there have been reports that players offered to take 50 percent of all revenue without any owner exemptions for expenses (owners currently get a $1-billion credit, after which the pie is split), radio and print reports that Carolina owner Jerry Richardson said something to demean player leaders Drew Brees and Peyton Manning at a Feb. 5 meeting, and reports that the union is angry owners decided unilaterally to stop meeting after one proposal last week instead of for the two days they'd been scheduled to bargain. If you're a fan, you're justified in thinking all will soon be lost and the season will be affected.

That's understandable. It's been 24 years since the last NFL games were lost due to a work stoppage, so you don't know how to feel when we're in the middle of such a time. But I want to stress two things before I get to three Goodell passages you should remember when the hour is dark:

1. Sports negotiations are deadline deals filled with both sides shooting at each other. The March 3 deadline is fairly meaningless, when you think about it. What happens in March that's vital to the regular season? Think of that word -- vital. Nothing. Is free agency vital to a season? No.

2. Players and owners have shown they can survive abridged seasons. Except for the March 2006 owners' agreement with players, which everyone now sees was decidedly one-sided in favor of the players, no deals get done early, particularly in football. In 1982, when the league's schedule was reduced from 16 to nine regular-season games, a new CBA was ratified on Nov. 17. In 1987, players struck after the second week, were out for four weeks, and resumed play in Week 7. In the meantime, one week was canceled and three were played with replacement players and NFL guys who crossed the picket line.

I covered the Giants that year, and the season was a thing of ridicule, with stars like Lawrence Taylor crossing the picket line to play virtual pickup games (Taylor faced a truck driver from Illinois recruited to play left tackle for the Bills in the last Giants' strike game in Buffalo, and the guy was called for five penalties on LT). So don't think the threat of missed games is going to cause players or owners to cave. They may cave eventually, but I still think games will be lost. Now, will the game be tarnished? Of course. Ruined? No.

Having said those two things, I'll tell you something I experienced trailing Goodell for parts of a couple of months. Other than the league's failure to get a team in Los Angeles -- a drive he spearheaded -- he didn't fail at many negotiations, or in making many deals. I got the feeling that, as in many negotiations, with many smart negotiators, Goodell's feeling when asked about these talks last season was basically, It's not time to make a deal. Neither side is going to be serious about making a strong offer now. Why force it, and then have to live with an offer you feel is too one-sided in favor of the other side? (Those are my characterizations, not his, to be clear.)

I bring you three anecdotes from my story:

Jerry Jones suing the league, 1995: Goodell was the lone dissenting voice in the league office when Jerry Jones sued the NFL in 1995 to be able to use his Cowboy logo locally in sales. The NFL lumped local and national rights to beer and soft drinks and burgers at that point; Jones thought he could make far more selling on his own than simply taking one-30th of the revenue the league raised by lumping all teams together. "I believed Jerry was right,'' Goodell said. "And I thought we were wrong on suing him. We didn't need to go there. So we were in a staff meeting, and I said Jerry had some good ideas; maybe we could sell sponsorship without the club marks. And the reaction was, 'No way. This is what we've always done.' ''

But that's what ended up happening. The league agreed to do what Jones, and Goodell, wanted -- have the league empowered to have an official soft drink of the NFL (which is now Pepsi), and have each team sell local soft drink rights (16 teams have Coca-Cola, 16 have Pepsi). It's been a boon to business. Jones estimates in the 15 years of the new NFL sponsor-nomics, the Cowboys have made more than $100 million more than they would have made doing things the old way. Consultant Marc Ganis of Sportscorp Ltd., estimates the 32 franchises are at least $2 billion richer because of the new way.

Replacing the Browns in Cleveland, 1995-96: The league woke up one November morning to the news that Art Modell was moving the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore. Such a storied NFL city, with such tradition, without a franchise? Disaster. The locals were so ticked off at Browns owner Art Modell, and at the league for allowing the move to happen, that whoever was dispatched from the league to calm the masses was Public Enemy No. 2, behind Modell. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue sent Goodell to Cleveland to try to work out a deal to put an existing or new franchise back in the city. "Roger took a ball that was flatter than a pancake and blew it up,'' said Tagliabue.