The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee meets every year on the day before the Super Bowl to select that year’s class. Fifteen modern-day players are chosen as finalists, and a maximum of five can be selected. At least 10 will be voted down.
This year, one of the 10 who was voted down was Edgerrin James. One of the members of the selection committee has a problem with that, and he published a column that reveals more about the problems with the selection committee than about James’s merits as a Hall of Famer.
The voter in question is Clark Judge, and he writes that James was left out because voters “ignored” James’ accomplishments. Judge uses the word “ignored” nine times in his argument against his fellow voters. He thinks he recognizes James’ greatness and too many of his fellow voters are ignorant of that greatness.
But Judge provides no evidence that any voter “ignored” James’ accomplishments at all. It’s entirely possible that most or even all of the Hall of Fame voters actually consider James a great player who’s worthy of Hall of Fame enshrinement. It’s just that they consider other candidates even more worthy.
And that’s one of the fundamental flaws with the way the Pro Football Hall of Fame selects its annual classes: It doesn’t matter if, in a given year, there are half a dozen or a dozen or two dozen worthy candidates. A maximum of five of those 15 modern-day finalists are getting in. If Judge is sure that James should have been one of those five this year, he also needs to name one of the five who got in this year who should have been left out in favor of James. Judge curiously fails to do that. Maybe he doesn’t want to anger fans of Ray Lewis, Brian Urlacher, Randy Moss, Terrell Owens or Brian Dawkins, but until he’s willing to name one of those five he’d leave out in favor of James, his insistence that James should have been voted in rings hollow.
Based on things Judge has said and written in the past, it’s likely that Judge would have chosen James over Owens. Judge has criticized Owens and defended the Hall of Fame selection committee when Owens was previously voted down. That’s fine. Judge is entitled to the opinion that James should be a Hall of Famer and Owens should not. But he should present that opinion in an intellectually honest fashion: It’s not that the voters “ignored” James’ accomplishments, it’s that voters thought other players were more accomplished. Judge was free to make his case for James at the selection committee meeting, other voters were free to make their case for Owens, and ultimately voters thought Owens was more worthy.
At least, that’s probably how it went down in the selection committee meeting. We don’t know for sure, because the bigger flaw in the process is its lack of transparency. The first rule of the Hall of Fame selection committee is, Don’t talk about what’s said in the committee room. Voters are sworn to secrecy about who said what. If you break that code of silence, you’re out of the club.
But why should that be the case? Journalists demand transparency of everyone else, so why, when journalists deliberate to make a decision, do they insist that their deliberations be shrouded in secrecy?
Because of that lack of transparency, we have no idea what the arguments were that led to James being excluded. It’s entirely possible that someone on the selection committee made a persuasive case against James, and other voters agreed with that case. Or it’s possible that everyone in the selection committee agreed that James is deserving, but when it came time to narrow down the list of 15 finalists, they decided that other candidates were more deserving.
For voters to insist on secrecy about their discussions, only to have individual voters then criticize other voters, only serves to undermine public trust in the Hall of Fame.