Peter King of Sports Illustrated recently said on Twitter that he’d served as an elector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame for the past 18 years. To put that in an odd sort of perspective, the average length-of-service for the nine Supreme Court justices is just over 12 years.
Like the Supreme Court, the selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame are something of a mystery. We know there are 44 selectors: 32 representing each NFL city (two for New York), one representative of the Pro Football Writers of America, and 11 “at-large” selectors, which include King. Like Supreme Court justices, selectors serve until they die or choose to resign (except the PFWA representative, who serves a two-year term). Presumably the Hall’s board of trustees, which is controlled by National Football League owners, fills any vacancies on the panel.
The only real qualification for the selectors is that they must be a member of the media. All of them have a background in “traditional” journalism, but some now work primarily for television or online publications, such as elector Dave Goldberg, a longtime Associated Press writer now with AOL Fanhouse. Some like King are “hybrids” who work in print, online, and television. None of them, as far as I can tell, have any experience actually working in the NFL in any significant capacity.
Baseball set the precedent for allowing a media monopoly over hall of fame election. In baseball’s case, it was thought giving the press a vested interest in the process would help promote the Hall of Fame itself. No doubt the NFL followed that reasoning when it created the Group of 44. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make much sense.
This isn’t necessarily a knock on the media electors themselves. But it’s illogical that football, which values specialisation more than any other team sport, delegates the honouring of its best players to a group of writers who are defined by their lack of specialisation. Sportswriters are the ultimate generalists. (If you don’t believe me, just read Peter King’s weekly column sometime.) Having never played or coached or managed the game, they are hardly in a position to judge superior talent. They certainly aren’t any more qualified then, say, a group of randomly selected fantasy football players.
The breakdown of Hall of Famers by position is telling. From the “modern” era, there are 23 quarterbacks, 21 wide receivers, 27 running backs, 35 offensive linemen, seven tight ends, 28 defensive linemen, 20 linebackers, 21 defensive backs, 21 coaches, and 12 owners. The QB-to-offensive linemen ratio stands to me. There are five times as many linemen as quarterbacks in the NFL at any one time, yet just over 1.5 times as many linemen than QBs in the Hall. A marginal offensive skill-position player, coach, or owner has a better chance of getting into the Hall versus a linesmen or any defensive player (to say nothing of special teams players).
This is perfectly understandable. Media members naturally gravitate towards authority figures like quarterbacks and coaches, and they tend to put little energy into analysing the contributions of linesmen and other non-glamor positions. This naturally seeps into the Hall voting. But that only begs the question, why does the media continue to enjoy a monopoly on the voting?
There’s certainly no “perfect” voting system for any Hall of Fame. But if the primary function of the Hall is to honour the players, then why are they treated in the most disrespectful manner possible? Because of the artificial limits imposed by the Hall, no more than seven players can be inducted per year. The voting system also allows a player to appear on the ballot multiple times. Some players appeared on the final ballot 13 or 14 times before the media members elected them. How is that respectful to the player or his contributions to the game? There’s no reason people should have to wait more than a decade while the media publicly debates their merits as a candidate.
Then again, the “debates” themselves are held behind closed doors. Some electors publicly discuss who they support, but for the most part, election to the Hall is treated with same secrecy as a Papal conclave. (At least the Vatican imposes age limits on its electors!) This seems to turn media “ethics” on its head: The same people who demand public accountability from the NFL agree to hold secret meetings to discuss the league’s premiere honour. It’s inconceivable that there is anything said in these meetings that could not withstand public scrutiny.
The present Hall selectors represent football’s equivalent of the British House of Lords, a life peerage that is completely unrepresentative of the football community at-large. So, much like Tony Blair reformed the House of Lords in the late 1990s by banishing most of the hereditary peers, maybe it’s time for the NFL to banish most of the sportswriters and make way for some people who, perish the thought, actually played, coached, and managed in the NFL to have some say on the Hall of Fame.
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