Every year, on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, 44 men and women gather in the host city and determine the members of the next class of Hall of Famers.
Typically, the panel considers 15 modern-era candidates, which systemically is whittled down to five finalists for an up-or-down vote. The voters also consider two previously-determined finalists determined by the Seniors Committee, which comes up with two players who, for whatever reason, were passed over during past sessions.
In the end, as few as four and as many as seven secure admission to Canton.
Every year, complaints inevitably arise regarding the persons who make it and those who don’t. At times, those complaints are aimed at the process. Usually, the debate fizzles by the next day, when the Super Bowl starts.
This year, largely through the efforts of Jason Whitlock of FOXSports.com, the criticism has lingered. The fact that Whitlock’s opinions have sparked a pointed response from two of the voters has served only to give the discussion ongoing life.
Though some of the voters who perhaps feel a threat to their fiefdom may not like it, any effort to consider whether the process can be improved represents a valuable expenditure of time and effort. In this vein, we now offer 10 specific ideas for improving the procedure for determining who gets in, and who’s left out of, the Hall of Fame.
1. Expand the panel.
The panel currently consists only of media members, some of whom are unemployed, underemployed, self-employed, and/or semi-retired. One voter is assigned for each team, even if the voter has no specific jurisdiction over that team. For example, Len Pasquarelli of The Sports Xchange holds the vote that corresponds to the Falcons, even though he hasn’t focused his efforts on that team for years. Ditto for David Elfin, the Redskins’ representative who no longer works for a Washington-focused publication. Others, like Joe Reedy of the Cincinnati Enquirer, had limited experience covering the NFL but was the only guy at the only paper in the town in which the team is headquartered.
That’s not a knock on Joe, whom we know and like. But, surely, he’ll acknowledge that he had limited experience covering the NFL when he got the assignment. Before inheriting the Bengals beat from Mark Curnutte in 2009, Reedy previously covered the Jets for two years (1997 and 1998) at the Post-Star in Glen Falls, New York and the Jaguars for one year (1999) at the Gainesville Sun. Many would contend that three relatively distant years at non-first-tier publications shouldn’t be enough to secure 2.27 percent of the say as to who makes it to Canton.
The panel also includes one representative of the Professional Football Writers Association and 11 at-large media members. That’s 44 total voters.
The panel, put simply, is too small. (And, trust me, I’m not saying that because I’m angling for a seat at the table. I don’t want one, I don’t expect to ever be offered one — especially after writing this article — and I wouldn’t have the time to do the assignment justice unless and until I become unemployed, underemployed, self-employed, and/or semi-retired.) Because the human beings who comprise the panel are subject to the same human factors that influence us consciously or otherwise, one way to neutralize those realities is to involve more voters.
As explained below, that doesn’t mean more media members. To enjoy the full faith and confidence of football fans, the process needs more voices, more perspectives, and less power in the hands of any one voter.
Many of the persons who hold these votes take great pride in the assignment. As a result, they naturally will be inclined to resist any changes that will make the achievement less significant, such as adding significantly more people to the process.
Regardless, significantly more people need to be added to the process.
2. Overhaul the Board of Trustees.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is governed by a Board of Trustees. Some of the names are instantly recognizable, like Commissioner Roger Goodell, Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. (One name is recognizable but curiously out of place. ESPN’s Todd Blackledge, whose bailiwick is college football, has a seat on the Board of Trustees.)
There is also a cluster of persons with no connection to the NFL, but who hold positions of prominence in and around Canton, Ohio, the geographic location of the Hall of Fame.
With all due respect to those Canton-area businesspeople, it makes no sense for the policies and procedures of the Hall of Fame to be set by folks whose biggest contribution to the process is the ability to show up for meetings without incurring travel expenses. Though it makes sense for the Pro Football Hall of Fame to seek the support and involvement of the Canton business community, the Board of Trustees should be composed of folks who have a direct role in the game and who have the best interests of the game at all times in mind.
To the extent that there are some Canton-area businesspeople who have a direct role in the game, such as Packers great and successful Akron businessman Dave Robinson, they should have a seat at the table. We also realize that some members of the Board of Trustees are instrumental in organizing the events that surround each year’s enshrinement ceremony. But most of the persons who are setting policy for the Hall of Fame should have names that ardent fans and followers of the sport instantly recognize.
Currently, it’s roughly a 50-50 split. That needs to change.
3. Change the bylaws.
The Board of Trustees ultimately determine the contents of the Hall of Fame’s bylaws. All too often, members of the panel who are faced with criticism of the selection process instantly explain that their hands are tied by the bylaws.
So change the bylaws.
Every year, the NFL changes multiple rules in the hopes of making the game better. In the past half-decade, the only meaningful change to the bylaws occurred when the modern-era finalists were increased from 13 to 15.
The bylaws shouldn’t be used as a shield for avoiding change, but as a sword for implementing it. All too often, the bylaws become an excuse for the status quo, not the impetus for improvement. For that reason alone, the powers-that-be need to be willing and able on an annual basis (or more often) to look for ways to improve the rules that govern the selection process.
4. Include Hall of Famers.
Every year, the winner of the Heisman Trophy acquires the ability to vote on all future winners of the award. The logic is simple, and undeniable. Winning the Heisman represents membership in an exclusive club, and the men who have won it should have a say in who gets it.
The argument applies even more strongly to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame coach John Madden believes that the busts talk to each other at night. If they do, the first comment when a new crop joins them shouldn’t be, “Who in the hell let that guy in?”
They say it takes one to know one, and a Hall of Famer is in the best position to know another Hall of Famer. Though giving Hall of Famers votes would introduce the possibility of biases and prejudices, those factors surely apply from time to time (or, as the case may be, every year) to the 44 men and women who currently have the keys to Canton, especially when players who earn a reputation for being hard on the media seem to have a hard time getting into the Hall of Fame.
The only requirement? To vote, the Hall of Famer must attend the meeting. No proxies or absentee ballots. If they show up, they get a say in the process.
5. Include coaches and other established football minds.
In responding to Jason Whitlock’s column calling for change, Bob Gretz argued that “Rick Gosselin has forgotten more football in a week than Whitlock has known in his life.” That same observation likely applies to many of the folks currently on the selection committee.
And that observation probably would apply to all of them if, say, guys like Joe Gibbs or Ron Wolf or Bill Parcells or Chuck Noll were in the room.
So why not give people who have devoted their careers to coaching football and/or running football teams a direct say in who should and shouldn’t land in the Hall of Fame? For those not already in the Hall of Fame, they’d have to forfeit their own eligibility for the Hall until two years after leaving the committee.
Frankly, those folks are far better suited to picking the new members of the Hall of Fame than pretty much everyone on the selection committee as its currently constituted.
6. Categorize the candidates.
Every year, the finalists are thrown into a vat regardless of the position they played, with the new members of the Hall emerging from a stew that can’t distinguish between pancake blocks and pick-sixes. It would make more sense to allow one new member per year from each of the various positions on the field: quarterback, running back, receiver/tight end, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker, defensive back, and coach/G.M./contributor.
The finalists would be determined by position, with the list of candidates trimmed to three-to-five before the selection meeting, and with no requirement that a person be admitted from each position group.
This would expand the potential maximum size of the class from seven to eight, but the high-water mark of seven per year has been in place since 1964, the year after the charter class was inducted. At the time, the NFL and AFL had only 22 teams.
Today, the NFL has 32 franchises, as a result of the addition of two in 1966, one in 1967, one in 1968, two in 1976, two in 1995, one in 1999, and one in 2002. Moving the maximum annual class from seven to eight in light of the growth of the league isn’t simply justified, it’s overdue.
7. Scuttle the Senior Committee.
The Senior Committee serves the purpose of allowing the selection committee to revisit two players from past seasons who fell through the cracks. In other words, it gives the selection committee to right past wrongs. By improving the selection process, there would be no reason to clean up past messes by devoting two of seven annual spots to guys who failed to get in when competing directly with their peers.
In his response to Jason Whitlock’s criticisms, Bob Gretz unwittingly proved our point.
Gretz explained that, ever year, a pair of Hall of Famers join the Seniors Committee to assist in the process of whittling down the previously overlooked players to two finalists, who seem to almost always get in. For the 2011 class, Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham and Hall of Fame tight end Charlie Sanders worked with the Seniors Committee.
Ham, per Gretz, made a strong case for linebacker Chris Hanburger.
“Ham told the group that when he went to the Steelers in the 1971 NFL Draft out of Penn State, the Pittsburgh coaches gave him film of Hanburger to study,” Gretz writes. “There was no doubt in Ham’s mind that Hanburger was a legitimate candidate. Whose word are your going to take on this subject: Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, or Jason Whitlock?”
Gretz essentially is admitting that the selection committee screwed up by not putting Hanburger in the Hall years earlier. With the involvement on the selection committee of guys like Hall of Famer Jack Ham convinced that Hanburger should get in, that wouldn’t have happened.
In other words, if Ham and the other Hall of Famers had a seat at the table, perhaps Hanburger wouldn’t have been erroneously passed over.
After all, whose word should the Hall of Fame been taking on this subject: Hall of Fame linebacker Jack Ham, or any member of the media?
8. Embrace transparency.
Though many voters seek refuge in the bylaws and regard them as if they’d been etched onto stone tablets by the hand of God, many also will acknowledge the validity of Whitlock’s complaint that the process unfolds in secrecy.
Peter King of Sports Illustrated and NBC, who has nothing but the best interests of the process in mind (and I say that not because he’s a friend and a colleague but because I’ve spent enough time around him to know that’s who he is and how he operates), would welcome transparency.
“I’d be fine with our votes being made public, which the Hall currently doesn’t want us to do,” King wrote in his February 7 Monday Morning Quarterback column. “The feeling from Hall officials is if our votes are published, then some voters might vote differently; if a voter from Buffalo, for instance, didn’t vote for Andre Reed (and this is only an example, not the truth), he might face a backlash when he goes back to cover his team. Or in some small way it might affect his vote if he or she knew everyone would know exactly how the vote went. I believe it’s incumbent on us to not hide behind the privacy of the room. The Hall is a huge deal, obviously, with burgeoning interest every year. If we’re going to sit on the committee and sit in judgment of these men for enshrinement, I think you ought to know how we vote.”
If one of the most respected members of the NFL media believes that the process should be more transparent, then it’s fair to say that the process should be more transparent. With an expanded panel of voters, anyone who covers the team on which a player played most or all of his career could abstain from voting, thereby addressing the biggest concern that King raised.
9. Involve the NFL.
As mentioned above, the Commissioner and various owners occupy seats on the Hall of Fame’s Board of Trustees. But the NFL should be even more involved than that.
Though it’s called the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it’s essentially the NFL Hall of Fame, and the NFL should be in position to propose changes to bylaws and initiate procedural enhancements aimed at improving the process of determining each class of enshrinees.
One change the NFL would likely make relates to the consideration of off-field conduct. Currently forbidden by the bylaws, the reality is that plenty of voters consider the things a candidate did when not playing football, especially in close cases. The bylaws, then, should change to reflect the reality of the process.
If the NFL is the perpetual custodian of the highest levels of the sport, the NFL should have much greater involvement in and dominion over the museum that celebrates those who made the biggest impact on the game.
10. Commit to continuous improvement and change.
Most of the criticisms of the current selection process arise from a perception that the system is stale and stagnant, in large part because change doesn’t happen often and doesn’t seem welcome.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell repeatedly explains that the league constantly must look for ways to enhance and improve the game. That same attitude must infect, and overtake, the Hall of Fame.
So many things about the selection process need to be changed because so little change has happened in the 48 years since the Hall of Fame opened. Egos and agendas and pride and any other factor that stands in the way of change needs to be set aside, and folks need to look for ways to make the process better, and ultimately more fair.
We’re not advocating change for the sake of change. But in this case there has been little or no change. Changes need to be made, and then the Hall of Fame needs to be willing to consider future change without external calls for it.