Let’s not slam the Hall of Fame voters; the problem is not with who they vote in, it is how they are voted (or not voted) in. It is difficult (and pointless) to make an argument against any of the 267 members. Usually, where fans get the most heartburn, is arguing for someone who did not get in. Every year there are worthy candidates who do not make it in, and for a player to make the final 15 in the voting process, they no doubt have a worthy resume. If you are arguing as to why one player made it in, you need to be prepared to argue why another player shouldn’t be in. So, rather than try to lessen the accomplishments of a player, the better choice to make is to examine the Hall of Fame process. Then, work to see if it can be fixed to where it still remains the “Hall of Fame” and doesn’t become the “Hall of the Very Good.”
For those that are not aware of the process, here’s a quick recap. The voters of are comprised of a 44-person committee, which is generally made of sportswriters like Peter King of Sports Illustrated, and is known as the Board of Selectors. Most of the Board of Selectors are permanent members of the committee, and are only removed by resignation, retirement, or death. A player is eligible for consideration five years after retirement, while contributors do not have a required waiting period. Anyone can nominate a person by writing the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The Hall of Fame then polls the voters three times between March and October, by which time the list is narrowed down to 25 semifinalists. In November, the Board of Selectors is polled again to finalize the list to 15 people, in addition to two Seniors Finalists who are chosen from the Seniors Committee, a panel of nine members of the Board of Selectors.
The day before the Super Bowl, the voters meet to elect the new class. In order to be enshrined, a candidate must receive at least 80 percent support from the board, with at least four finalists but no more than seven being elected annually (no more than five modern-day, no more than two Senior candidates). If four members do not receive the requisite 80 percent, the top four vote-getters are elected to the Hall of Fame. Conversely, if more than seven received 80 percent support, only the top seven get in.
Now, before getting to the new ideas, I am a strong advocate that voters retain the anonymity and non-attribution policies that are still in place today. Attempting to force the voters to expose their votes would leave them open to retribution from cities they represent. For example, Sid Hartman, of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, represents the Vikings, and he presents Cris Carter’s case to the selectors. After all the presentations are complete, Mr. Hartman feels that Andre Reed’s career is more deserving of his vote than Carter’s and votes accordingly. How fair is it to expose Mr. Hartman to the backlash that would result from his vote, despite the fact that he voted in good conscience? There is no doubt all members of the Board of Selectors take their responsibilities seriously and with due diligence. Keeping the anonymity surrounding the votes is essential to the selection process and ensuring that each of the Board of Selectors vote based on who they think is most deserving, not based on a fear of retribution from the teams/cities they represent.
The first idea, which has gained momentum in sports talk over recent years, is to add a stand alone vote for the contributor category. This is a great idea, and it gained some traction when it was thought Ed Sabol, founder of NFL Films, might not get in. A contributor should never have to compete with a player for a spot in the Hall of Fame, and vice versa. It is quite literally comparing apples and oranges when it comes to articulating and quantifying their impact on the game. Using Mr. Sabol as an example, how is it possible to compare his accomplishments to those of players like Cris Carter, Dermontti Dawson, Charles Haley, or Cortez Kennedy, who were also finalists in 2011? If you are trying to measure the impact on the game between contributors and players, it is a never-ending debate, with both sides having compelling and reasonable arguments. The simplest, and correct, solution is to recognize the contributor’s impact the growth of the game in a real and meaningful way, but much different from a player’s contributions.
The second idea is to also have another stand alone vote for a special teams category. When the best player at his position is not in the Hall of Fame, as many would argue is the case of Ray Guy, the process is flawed. How can a punter, even one that was a seven time Pro Bowler and selected to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team, compete with a quarterback? There are 23 modern era quarterbacks and 24 pre-modern era quarterback/running backs enshrined, and it is hard to believe among those 47 players that Ray Guy does not rank somewhere. If special teams are one-third of the game as many analysts espouse, why doesn’t the Hall of Fame have more special-teamers? While it is not realistic to suggest or expect that 30% of players in the Hall are special-teamers, it is equally unrealistic to not have more of them placed in football’s halls of honor. It is irresponsible for the Board of Selectors not to recognize the contributions of the elite special teamers in NFL history. Adding a special teams category would afford them the opportunity to do this without forcing them to compete against the more prominent offensive and defensive players; limiting the special teams vote to once every five years is also a possibility.
Finally, the last idea is to hold a “special vote” every five years to vote on players who have made the final 15 three times (or more) over the previous five years. To be eligible for this special vote a player would have had to not only been a finalist at least three times since the last special vote, but also received a target percentage of support. For example, Cris Carter has been a finalist for the Hall of Fame every year since 2008, yet obviously has not received the requisite 80 percent support. In order to be considered in the special vote, Carter would need to have received an average of 50 percent (for example) support during those years he was a finalist. The Board of Selectors then hold a special vote in which Carter would need 80 percent support to get in. Having this type of vote would allow the Board of Selectors the opportunity to clear perceived backlogs or “log jams” as is the current case with Carter, Reed, and Tim Brown, with most people speculating they are canceling each other out in the voting process. The arguments have never been about whether they are deserving; they are about who is most deserving during voting on the finalists and why someone was excluded.
No process regarding the Hall of Fame selections will ever be perfect, simply because it is subjective to everyone involved, from the voters, to the analysts, to the fans, and to the players themselves. When examining the list of the 267 Hall of Famers, there is no outcry over one of its members, with people yelling, “Why the heck is that guy even in the Hall of Fame?” No, the discontent comes from those who are Hall of Fame worthy but are not able to get in due to flaws within the process. There is also talk about including players (specifically those already in the Hall) on the Board of Selectors, and this certainly merits discussion. While these ideas may not correct all the problems or have all the answers, it is a good basis to begin the dialogue of changing the rules that were established when the NFL was much younger and the world much smaller.