The Pro Football Hall of Fame is the NFL's most revered institution, but it is also one of its most contentious. Hardly anything is likely to start an argument among NFL fans faster than discussing players who belong in the Hall and those who don't.
Often these arguments are not simply limited to fans. Plenty of ex-pros revel in telling anyone who will listen why player X does not deserve to be enshrined at Canton.
While this debate can be animated and even worthwhile, the truth is the voting system for the Hall of Fame is as fair as it can be.
Let's take a brief overview of how new members are selected and see why that often causes controversy. According to Profootballhof.com, selection is determined by a committee of 46, consisting of:
The Committee consists of one media representative from each pro football city with two from New York, inasmuch as that city has two teams in the National Football League. A 33rd member is a representative of the Pro Football Writers of America and there are 13 at-large delegates.
With the exception of the PFWA representative who is appointed for a two-year term, all appointments are of the open-end variety and can be terminated only by retirement or resignation, as long as the member continues to attend meetings regularly.
The two points from that quote which usually spark the most intense reactions are the "open-end" appointments and "media representatives."
Many feel that the selection committee should be freshened up instead of letting the same figures occupy their positions for decades. One such person is Sports's Illlustrated's Peter King, himself a 20-year member of the selection panel.
In February 2012 King spoke of the benefits of letting new voices be heard:
Many of you are right. Twenty years is a long time. I've stated my case -- in favor or opposed -- for many who've been elected and many who haven't. And I've thought, independent of the argument some have proposed for term limits for Hall voters, that maybe it's time for someone else to sit in judgment of these great players, coaches and league and club officials. Fresh voices are good things.
But while King's last sentiment is true, there are also merits for maintaining experienced voices of authority on the panel. Those journalists who have spent decades covering individual teams will likely have witnessed the careers of many HOF candidates from inception to retirement.
They will have seen how candidates developed athletically and personally. With the element of insider knowledge most local journalists naturally possess, they might also know how candidates were viewed behind the scenes, by the players and coaches who knew them best.
The point is those who have spent a working lifetime covering the NFL, with a degree of distance and an objective eye, should form the deepest understanding of each candidate's merits.
Of course, not everyone agrees with that view. A common critique of the selection process is that the panel contains no former players.
This is where things can get tricky for supporters and critics of the selection methods. That is because of one simple truth. Ex-pros do not always make good analysts.
Greatness on the gridiron does not necessarily translate to special insight in the broadcast booth or when filling column inches. That may sound incredibly arrogant to some, but there is no escaping the very real dangers involved in letting players pick HOF candidates.
For one thing, those who have spent years in the blood and thunder environment of playing, have often thrived thanks to their emotions and instincts. Those are not qualities that lend themselves to reasoned and impassioned retrospective analysis.
Players are always going to approach this debate with the same emotional volatility they took onto the field. Anyone who has listened to Michael Irvin and Warren Sapp since they moved into broadcasting must surely cringe at the idea of them carefully selecting HOF entrants.
Speaking of Sapp, he has rightly joined this year's class, but his thoughts on a man who missed the cut provoked the most controversy. While Sapp was gaining entry to Canton, another great defensive lineman, Michael Strahan, was failing to make the cut.
In an interview with Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune, Sapp felt the need to explain just why Strahan doesn't belong in the hall and which player should be ahead of him:
"Nobody ever talks about Simeon,'' said Sapp, who played three seasons with Rice in Tampa and saw the right defensive end average 14 sacks between 2001-03. "Simeon was a better rusher than Michael Strahan any day of the week and twice on Sunday.''
Sapp also said Strahan's 15-year career with the New York Giants didn't take off until he was moved from right end to the left side.
"(Rice) didn't rush the worst lineman,'' said Sapp, who beat out Strahan for a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Class of 2013. "You know the right tackle is the worst of the five. Strahan played right end his first four years. When they were putting the label on him as a bust, they put 'B-U-S . OK, let's transition him on the other side and see if he can play in his fourth year.'
"They put him at right end and he couldn't do it, so they moved him to the weak guy. One-on-one with the (Eagles right tackle) Jon Runyans for eight quarters every year. Sim won't ever have his name brought up (for the Hall of Fame), and that's a shame. He's one of the best pass rushers I've ever encountered in my life.''
That Rice is a former teammate of Sapp's does not necessarily indicate outright bias from arguably the greatest defensive tackle in history. After all, Rice was a skilled and prolific pass-rusher.
But Sapp's endorsement of his former teammate's credentials does reveal the dangers of letting players make the choices.
Give one ex-pro the choice between two candidates boasting similar production. One is a former teammate and one is not. Is that ex-pro more likely to pick the player others told him was great, or the one he spent years waging wars with on Sundays?
While it is hard to say for certain, it does not take a cynic to guess the latter player would find himself invited to Canton.
Sapp's quote also shows how former players don't always impart the knowledge of their playing days effectively. For instance, Sapp's argument that Strahan only rushed against "the worst lineman," might find agreement among many. But it is only one side of the argument.
A simple counter would argue that rushing predominantly against right tackles did not make the late, great Reggie White any less of player. Another point of analysis might focus on Strahan's talent as a formidable run defender, something Rice could not equally claim.
The feud between Sapp and Strahan shows how many of the animosities that naturally accumulate among the fraternity of players, could be brought to bear if ex-pros were given the vote.
Think how many greats might be deemed unfairly excluded from the Hall then. Many have argued that the way to end such debate is to create a more open process. But this approach is fraught with peril.
In February 2012, Mike Florio of Profootballtalk.com, argued that greater transparency would only increase criticism of the process:
Instead, it will make it easier for those who lobby the voters to identify who should be targeted. And it would make it easier for fans who choose to badger and/or heckle the writers to know which ones have kept their favorite player(s) out of Canton.
Transparency makes sense only if the panel grows significantly in size and composition. Even then, there could be only a small handful of voters who are keeping a certain player out, and those voters could find themselves bombarded with email, snail mail, phone calls, and/or catcalls.
Under the kind of intense pressure Florio correctly envisions, impartial voting may be rendered next to impossible. The simple truth is the Hall of Fame will never avoid controversy.
To some the process itself engenders such controversy. That was the view of Andy Barall, writing for The New York Times in February 2012:
If the Hall of Fame wanted to design a selection process almost guaranteed to produce controversy, they couldn’t have done better. After a lengthy debate the day before the Super Bowl over a list of 15 modern-era finalists, the number of candidates is reduced to 10, and then to 5, both by secret ballot. The final five are then voted on individually, with 80 percent approval needed for election.
The five-man maximum assures that 10 generally well-qualified candidates won’t make it. Indeed, it’s easy to make a compelling case for one or two of those 10 every year, sometimes more. The arguments for Parcells usually leave something out: Whom should he replace? That’s the problem. Parcells shouldn’t have to replace anyone.
The system requires the committee to consider each nominee beyond his own merits. In effect, they’re forced to make false choices.
However, even with changes to the format, questions of who should be in and who should not won't suddenly become irrelevant. Adding former players to the voting panel will also open up even more questions, as King notes:
I believe all votes should be made public, because we should stand behind our opinions. I believe the committee should be expanded to include a conscientious player, coach or club official from the existing 32 teams. But if you think that's going to end the arguments and the perceived biases, you're crazy. It would, however, give the vote more legitimacy, in my opinion.
Who decides who is a "conscientious" player or coach? The fact is the current method of selection works as well as it can.
Consider the class of 2013 as a prime example. While debate will rightly rage over Strahan, where did the selectors really go wrong with this year's group?
Of course, there are always going to be notable omissions and debate around them. But a little debate is the fun part.
When you consider those already in the hall, an honest assessment says the selectors have gotten more right than wrong.