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Hall of Fame decisions may be carried out better by new voters


It's good to be able to sit and think for a while after the Super Bowl. Gives us all time to think about the season and all the things that go with it. So I've been giving my role in the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process some thought. It's a good time to give it some thought, too. I just finished my 20th year deliberating the immortality of retired pro football greats.

I've been thinking of stepping down from the committee of 44 selectors. Many of you are right. Twenty years is a long time. I've stated my case -- in favor or opposed -- for many who've been elected and many who haven't. And I've thought, independent of the argument some have proposed for term limits for Hall voters, that maybe it's time for someone else to sit in judgment of these great players, coaches and league and club officials. Fresh voices are good things.

In 20 years, sitting on the panel has gone from an honor to equal parts burden and honor. I never got in this for pats on the back. I got in it to try to do the right thing by my conscience. Sitting in judgment of the all-time greats is an often-intimidating job, because you realize you're acting as judge and jury to a man's career. When Chris Doleman got in this year, he said that night that the only thing better in his life would be when he died and met his maker. Don't think that's lost on me. It's an honor -- with a heavy weight attached. And the weight gets heavier every year.

In the last few years, I've lost count of how many people in the game and on the street have told me, in various ways, "You're an idiot, you're incompetent, you stink at this, and how can you leave [fill in the blank] out of the Hall of Fame?" And after a while, you just start thinking, Why am I doing this anyway? I figured the other day that I spend the equivalent of about four days of my life each year on the Hall of Fame -- asking former coaches and players and officials about the cases of certain candidates. I know how important it is. I try to do the best and most conscientious job I can, knowing that there are, in almost every class of 15 modern-era finalists, more candidates I'd vote yes on than no.

This year, when all the discussions in the room were finished, I looked down my list and checked 11 men I'd have voted for and four I would have turned down. But we whittle the list from 15 to 10, and then from 10 to five, before we vote yes or no on individual candidates. That means, on my list this year, six deserving men wouldn't get in.

So when you look at the list of those who got in and ask how could I not have voted for so-and-so, the answer in many cases is simple: I supported so-and-so every step of the way, but it's a democracy. Majority rules.

The four I don't think are Hall of Famers? It has nothing to do with some bias I have against them. None of them was rude to me. None turned me down for an interview. The 11 I favor? It's not because I covered them or worked on TV with them; I have twice voted against men I respect and covered as a team beat writer. It's not because they are my friends. One of the men I opposed never spoke to me again after he learned of my vote. That's life.

I believe all votes should be made public, because we should stand behind our opinions. I believe the committee should be expanded to include a conscientious player, coach or club official from the existing 32 teams. But if you think that's going to end the arguments and the perceived biases, you're crazy. It would, however, give the vote more legitimacy, in my opinion.

I try to be as honest in my writing as humanly possible, and I don't write this today to engender any sort of pity party. It's a tremendous honor to be asked to be a Hall of Fame voter. I have a lot of thinking to do about this. It might be time to make it someone else's tremendous honor.

So, after all the negatives, why am I still on the fence? It's simple: This is such an important task. I love the game. I love the history of the game. I have such great respect for the Hall of Fame. I know how much I put into it, and I believe strongly I do the job honestly and with conviction. I'm torn because it IS so important, and because I'm confident that in a sea of very difficult decisions, I make them for the right, and honest, reasons.

While I deliberated in the last few days, an e-mail from a fellow voter came to me. I won't name the voter, but I asked if I could share the sentiments, and the voter said yes. This voter is having some of the same doubts about the process as I am.

I know I make my choices carefully each year when considering the group of finalists before me. Yet if I speak out publicly and proclaim that, it will only make it worse for all of us. I don't have a bias against any person on the ballot. I try to make choices based on one man's case against the other others. Why is that so hard for people to grasp? Several of us are questioning whether we want to continue on the committee. The pressure and responsibility at times is overwhelming to me. I feel physically ill every time I take a ballot and reduce it to 15. (Am I preventing this person from entering the discussion in the room because I'm more impressed by another player's body of work?) Taking it to 10 on Selection Saturday is excruciating. When I present a person and he fails to make it to Canton, I feel as if I've failed him. But I feel a tremendous sense of duty to remain.

Mike Florio -- who I really like and respect -- is banging the drum for turnover and a fresh crop of selectors every few years. Yet this is lost on Mike and many others: There are fewer of us who can commit to attending the meeting each year. I agree wholeheartedly with your suggestion that we include a team representative from every club. I would welcome the perspective. I also would reveal my vote if asked (and permitted), and I'd state my case for why I chose one player over another.

Now I'll turn the floor over to you, as I do every Tuesday:

THE HALL CAN CHANGE THE RULES, YES. "Thanks so much for addressing the HOF controversies that have popped up again this year. You've explained the selection criteria and procedural rules to us several times, but I'm curious: what are the rules about changing the rules? In other words, if the HOF wanted to change the overall percentage required for enshrinement, or wanted to install a procedural measure to deal with two players at the same position splitting votes, how could it do so?

It seems to me this issue could become important, not just to solve the current controversy at WR, but also because as the league has expanded, more players are now eligible and, in theory, there could be more players worthy of enshrinement in a given period of time than there used to be when the league was smaller.

As a HOF voter, how would you feel about upping the number of enshrinees by one per year? Do you think that would more accurately capture the broader/deeper base of talent in the league? Or do you think it would somehow cheapen making the HOF (which now seems even harder to do given the increased number of teams and players)?"-- Joe Reid, San Diego

Good question, Joe. I wouldn't mind seeing the max number of modern-era candidates go up by one. But I also would favor a coach/GM/scout/administrator/commissioner category, with one slot per year going to that group. I'm really bothered by the fact that Ron Wolf, who I believe strongly is a Hall of Fame GM and scout, can't even make the final 15 list.

WHITHER COUGHLIN? "To me Parcells should be a shoo-in for the Hall. A lot of the Super Bowl hype has been to say that Tom Coughlin also punched his Hall of Fame ticket with the Super Bowl win. But if Parcells can't get in, how is Coughlin going to make it?"-- David, Washington

Good question. I don't have the answer for it.

RE: TERM LIMITS. "Regarding HOF selectors -- I'd suggest that people rotate as voters. Sort of like picking a jury from a jury pool, with some randomness every year. That way the voting dynamics can change without compromising the core process. You could have a pool of 70-80 selectors, but only 40 or so picked in any given year. These wouldn't be term limits, but, say, any given voter is limited to no more than eight times in any 10-year period. Every year, the dynamics change, but the core process stays the same."-- Zeke San Jose

This is interesting, Zeke. Very interesting. I'll forward your suggestion to the Hall.

I THINK THIS IS A NICE WAY OF SAYING, 'WE'RE ALL SCREWED UP.' "Thank you for addressing the HOF voting issue in an honest and straightforward manner. I think it is possible for a system to be "corrupt" without the individuals who comprise the system being personally "corrupt." Please hear me out.

I read you every week and you seem to go out of your way to be candid. Your view that the vote should be public is extremely admirable. But there is something systematically wrong when you (or anyone) sit as a longtime gatekeeper with one of 44 keys to access to the greatest prize in the sport (outside of a SB ring) for the very people who have to give you access to their time (for interviews) and locker rooms as you do your "day job." It is impossible not to think that, systematically, people in your position more often than not hear what those who are dependent on you think you want to hear.

"I think the selection committee should be expanded to include a former coach or player from each team and that the media membership should be immediately reduced to an equal 32 and transformed to a rolling membership in which no individual serves more than eight years (good enough for the president). As for the argument that younger media members will be voting on players they never saw play, I think that is specious. With today's technology, the careers of players for at least the last three decades are thoroughly available for inspection. And if a young guy doesn't know who a former star was, then somebody else made the mistake in hiring him in the first place.

Finally, fans should be given a voice. The NFL should sponsor an annual "vote," with the top five candidates in that election receiving one vote each in the "room" itself. Not enough to sway the process in favor of players from big media markets, but enough that the people in the room and the general public will have to confront what the fans are thinking. And, of course, your suggestion that the vote should be completely open and transparent should be adopted."-- John Keller, New York

A lot to digest. No matter how often I say this, people aren't going to believe I vote my conscience, regardless of my relationships with people. But I do understand your skepticism about it. The fact is, most people we're judging are no longer active in the game -- and we don't "need" them to make our stories. I'm not in favor of fans having a say. Fans are fans. They're not impartial. We need as much impartiality on the panel as possible with these votes.

BILL WANTS TO BLOW THE WHOLE THING UP. "Two facts that make it obvious (to me, anyway) that the HOF voting is completely screwed up: A) The fact that you've been one of a very small group of HOF voters for a very long time, and you don't see anything wrong with that. B) Your implied notion that there's something special about the current members because they've been at it so long, plus your (almost) direct statement that most replacements won't be as knowledgeable.

Don't get me wrong, I'm sure you truly believe that you're doing a fine job, and that you're being as fair and honest as possible, and it has nothing to do with any "power" you hold as one of 44. But it's also clear that you're not only missing the forest for the trees, you're so deeply buried inside a tree trunk that you can't even see the bark."-- Bill, Montoursville, Pa.

Thanks for writing.

BRAD'S POINT IS LOUDLY MADE. "You say you 44 HOF voters are getting some flak these last couple weeks? Good! It's about time. No organized group I know of does their job so poorly as that one. First of all, the answer to your own question who of the just-elected should be left out to put Parcells and Carter in?: Answer, ALL of them. The very idea of Cortez Kennedy and Chris Doleman being IN the Hall of Fame, and Ken Stabler, Terrell Davis and Charles Haley NOT being in is so far from absurd that one cannot be justified even wasting time on it, as I am doing with you now. It is roughly the equivalent of the notion of Stan Musial and Warren Spahn not being in the baseball Hall of Fame and Alan Trammell and Tommy John being in it.

"As for Stabler, all you need to reflect on is that Bill Walsh -- arguably the brightest football mind ever, certainly relating to offense, a man who has forgotten more about football than you ever knew -- once was quoted as saying "Ken Stabler is a first-ballot Hall of Famer if ever there was one!' Makes you small-minded conspiracy theorists that have kept him out look pretty small, huh? Write me back and make your case. I dare you."-- Brad, Monrovia

Make my case. Hmmm. On what, exactly? Does it matter to you that Doleman has 39 more sacks/forced fumbles/recovered fumbles in his career than Michael Strahan, and had a 15-sack season at age 37? Or that Kennedy was the Defensive Player of the Year on a 2-14 team, and two noted coaches have told me he is the toughest linemen their interior line had to block, ever? And on the subject of "first-ballot Hall of Famers," that I believe it's the most overused cliché in all of pro football, and that if every person described thusly were put it on the first ballot, the Pro Football Hall of Fame would have approximately 3,496 bronze busts today?