Tuesday, February 03, 2004

Sports: Media Credibility and the Hall of Fame

I’ve just listened to an interview with Harry Carson, the former New York Giants linebacker, on ESPN Radio. Carson was passed over for the fifth year by the selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and he made a persuasive argument that he wants his name removed from the “political process” of Hall selection. The Hall has said they won’t honor the request, which to me only demonstrates the contempt the Hall and the selectors have for many players.

Each year, the Hall presents a list of 15 finalists to a committee of 38 selectors, all members of the media: A print or broadcast reporter from each of the 32 NFL cities, six reporters chosen at-large, and a delegate from the Pro Football Writers Association of America. Except for the PFWA delegate, all selectors serve at their own pleasure, much like Vatican cardinals (although cardinals over 80 can’t vote for pope). At least 80% of the selectors must vote for a finalist for him to be inducted into the Hall.

The stupidest part of the Hall selection process is that a player can be rejected multiple times before being inducted. Carl Eller, a former Minnesota Vikings defensive end, was voted down 12 times before being inducted by the media committee this year. What exactly changed on the 13th ballot to make Eller Hall-worthy? Absolutely nothing. Eller should have been in the Hall the first time he was eligible, as every member of the Hall should be. Unfortunately the process creates two distortions: First, the selectors can induct no more than six finalists per year, an unnecessary and arbitrary restriction; and second, a committee composed solely of media members brings certain biases, many of them irrational, that unfairly work against certain candidates.

Here in Washington, we love to talk about Art Monk, the great Redskins receiver. Monk’s been on the final ballot a few times now, yet has failed to get the magic 80%. The argument against Monk—made principally by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King, an at-large Hall selector—is that he did not have enough touchdowns, his yards-per-catch average was insufficient, and opposing coaches considered Gary Clark the Redskins top scoring receiver. None of these arguments have merit. Monk was used as a possession receiver, a short-yard gainer and blocker. He excelled in this role and was an essential part of four Redskins teams that went to the Super Bowl under Joe Gibbs.

If you asked a committee of players and coaches to vote on Hall inductions, Monk would have been easily chosen on the first ballot. But as long as the media controls the process, King’s arrogant emphasis on statistics of secondary importance will rule the day. It’s clear to me that the media should not have a monopoly on Hall selection. Especially given the highly specialized nature of football, the Hall should employ select committees to screen Hall finalists. I would suggest four separate committees: Offensive backs and receivers, offensive linemen, defensive linemen and linebackers, and defensive backs and special teams. This would help correct the media bias against the non-glamour positions, especially linemen and special teams.

The annual induction limit should also be dropped. Personally, I think anyone who can make the final 15 list should be admitted. Each year there are more 1,600 active players in the NFL. Letting 15 retired players in the Hall per year would do nothing to dilute the integrity of the Hall.

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