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(Photo courtesy of Jim Biever/Green Bay Packers)

By Clark Judge

Talk of Fame Network

Darren Sharper is going to prison. But could he be going to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, too?

Yes, that’s a serious question. Because Darren Sharper – who this week entered a plea deal on multiple rape and sexual assault charges and was sentenced to 20 years – is eligible for the Hall in 2016, and his career record makes him a candidate worth considering.

Now I know what you’re thinking: The only thing Darren Sharper should be eligible for some day is parole, and I get it. But the guy is a six-time All-Pro whose 63 career interceptions are sixth in NFL history and whose 13 career defensive touchdowns tie him with Rod and Charles Woodson for first. Furthermore, he was second-team all-decade.

In short, he has the credentials.

OK, so what? Well, so the Hall-of-Fame’s board of 46 selectors is under instructions to focus solely on what a player does on the field, meaning … uh-huh, meaning what you just heard and read about Darren Sharper’s going to prison? Yeah, well, ignore it.

You heard me. Ignore it. But is that possible? Or, to put it another way: How is that possible?

I asked that question of some of my colleagues on the Hall’s board, and what I found is a division of opinion that runs deep. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, for instance, has made it clear that he can separate what Sharper did on the field from what he did off of it, saying, “If I said, ‘I will not consider Sharper for induction because he has been accused of multiple rapes,’ I would resign from the committee.”

OK, fine. Except Sharper hasn’t been accused. He pleaded guilty or no contest and is going to prison for a long, long time … as he should. The guy was a serial rapist who committed crimes in four states. And that, said Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune, is enough for him to disqualify Sharper as a Hall-of-Fame candidate.

“The Hall has to stop this nonsense,” Canepa said. “It cannot nominate – let alone induct – a convicted and admitted rapist. The rules have to be changed.”

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Until they are, however, the Pro Football Hall of Fame is steadfast in its instructions to its selectors: They should not … cannot … allow what happens off the field to affect their judgments about what players do on it.

At least, that’s the intention.

But the reality is that’s easier said than done, and here’s why: When you think of Darren Sharper, what’s the first image that comes to mind? The safety who made game-saving interceptions or the handcuffed creep standing in front of a judge? Maybe now you understand.

“If Sharper makes the list of finalists and comes into the room for discussion in 2016,” said Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune, “I will judge his merits strictly as a football player. Those are the guidelines we are supposed to follow, and until they are changed by the Hall of Fame board, that’s what I will adhere to. I’m not sure he was a Hall-of-Fame player, but his legal issues won’t factor in my decision. In my opinion, anyone who doesn’t feel comfortable abiding by the Hall’s guidelines shouldn’t be in the room as a selector.”

Kaufman brings up a salient point: He’s not sure Sharper was “a Hall-of-Fame player,” and he’s not alone. More than one selector told me he doesn’t worry about making a moral decision because he won’t have to. He can make a football decision, and, in his mind, Darren Sharper isn’t Hall-of-Fame worthy. With safeties like John Lynch, Kenny Easley, Steve Atwater, Cliff Harris, Eddie Meador, Johnny Robinson and Dick Anderson in line, and Ed Reed, Brian Dawkins and Troy Polamalu joining the queue in the future he’s probably right.

Moreover, safety is a position that seems to be undervalued by the Hall. There are only seven pure safeties in Canton, with Kenny Houston the last to play. He retired after the 1980 season, or nearly 35 years ago.

“It’s hard to eliminate (Sharper’s conviction) from your mind when you do consider his accomplishments,” said one voter who asked to remain anonymous. “(But) I don’t think he’s a Hall of Famer. I think there are better safeties out there who should be considered before him. That makes it easy not to vote for him.”

And that, presumably, is where Darren Sharper’s Hall-of-Fame candidacy fizzles. Voters won’t consider his off-the-field behavior because they won’t have to. They can reason that he’s not Hall-of-Fame worthy because … well, because others are more qualified. So they’ll push him to the back of the line, where he will stay.

But Sharper’s case raises a bigger question: If, as Canepa suggests, you change the rules, who changes them and how are they defined? In other words, what off-the-field conduct is considered benign and what isn’t? Furthermore, who makes that judgment?

But then there is this: If the NFL is making its personal conduct policy an issue – and it is – how can Hall-of-Fame selectors ignore it? Or, more to the point, how can the Hall?

Clearly, Sharper’s off-the-field conduct was not benign, and it has voters conflicted – as it should. But in the end, they almost surely won’t have to deal with the guy. Some selectors privately concede they’re bothered by the rape convictions; others who insist they aren’t … because they can’t be … are adamant that Sharper doesn’t pass the eye test, falling short of more qualified safeties who can’t get a sniff of Canton.

Put them together and what do you have? The Hall of Fame spared a conundrum no one wants to consider.