The NFL Hall of Fame Is A Dictatorship

But guess what: It works a lot better than baseball's democratic system.
Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

It can be easy to forget in the wake of DeflateGate—in which millions of people pretended to care about a sports scandal but secretly only enjoyed whispering the word balls—but this week of the Super Bowl brings with it actual football-related activities. On Saturday, the day before the Big Game, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will announce its 2015 class of inductees. And the news here is that it will be no big deal. (Given the NFL’s many other issues, that’s a good thing.)

Oh, it’ll be a big deal for the players who are inducted, winnowed down from a current 15-player list. (Your current favorites are Kurt Warner, Orlando Pace, Jerome Bettis, and the late Junior Seau.) But the rest of us will look upon the new class, shrug, say “good for them” and then move along with our day.

Contrast this with the Baseball Hall of Fame, whose annual election for its hallowed halls is a yearly exercise in sturm und drang, a long, drawn-out, garment-rending festival of the macabre, featuring hundreds of pasty middle-aged men screaming at each other while the rest of us pick sides or recede into our bunkers and hide. The Pro Football Hall of Fame—like the NBA Hall of Fame, which is someday going to enshrine Chris Bosh and Shawn Marion, and no one will really mind—enshrines some guys, doesn’t enshrine other guys, and it doesn’t change the conversation around the sport one bit. (They announce the class the day before the Super Bowl, which is pretty much the one day out of the year the NFL least needs publicity.) But every Baseball Hall of Fame vote is inflated into a referendum on the sport’s popularity, its morality, and its history. In baseball, every Hall of Fame vote is supposed to say something about the Soul Of The Game. It’s no wonder people hide.

Part of the reason for this is the personalities of each sport. The NFL is too busy hoovering up television money to worry about its “legacy,” whereas baseball, because it’s a game people fall in love with at such a young, impressionable age, is perpetually full of people telling you how much better the game used to be. (Baseball is the only sport that seems to regard “our product has devalued in quality as the years have gone” as a legitimate sales strategy, something that’s particularly galling because it’s so plainly untrue.) Baseball is unduly obsessed with its past in a way that football isn’t; it’s not only obsessed with statistics and records, but also with a sort of ideological and pharmaceutical purity that the game obviously never had in the first place. Football reinvents itself every week, into whatever the public happens to want at that particular moment; baseball demands there to be a logical through line of history from then to now, even if that’s pretty obviously the opposite of how actual history works. Baseball’s Hall of Fame is so self-important that it is in danger of creating its own irrelevance; pro football’s knows this is all in fun, and proceeds accordingly.

But I’d argue the real reason for the differences in the way we talk about the two Halls is more basic. It all comes down to the form of government—the politics of induction—that each has chosen. The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process is streamlined, organized, and drama-free, a smooth-running dictatorship. The Baseball Hall of Fame is the exact opposite, something much more chaotic and anarchic: It’s democracy.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee, like baseball’s, is made up of sportswriters. They’re called the Board of Selectors, 46 women and (mostly) men representing every team’s city and a few old NFL cities (Los Angeles has a rep, for example) along with a rep from the Pro Football Writers Association. Any player can be nominated—you can nominate a player yourself simply by writing to the Hall of Fame—and the 46 judges narrow the field, by mail, to 15 before meeting the week of the Super Bowl to choose the enshrinees. The rules for enshrinement are clear: You need 80 percent of the people in the room to vote for you, and there’s a minimum of four inductees and a maximum of seven. (If not enough people get 80 percent, they just choose the top four vote-getters.) There is no morals clause, no Sanctity Of The Game provision, no Respect The Game requirement. It’s all about what you did on the field: O.J. Simpson, for example. Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was widely accused of using a performance enhancing drug while playing—deer antler spray, bizarrely—but he will sail into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible. The Board of Selectors is small enough to reflect its sport, primarily because the Board is made up of people who still actively cover football. To look at the list of voters, which is public, is to see who’s who of the football media world: Peter King, Sal Paolantonio, John Clayton, Gary Myers, Dan Pompei, Barry Wilner, so on. It’s best not to think of them as voters as all: Think of them as the Senate. Except there are no political parties, and no one can veto them.

Sure, there’s some debate about the people on the committee, and you can question some of their decisions (particularly their inability to properly evaluate wide receivers), but on the whole: It’s widely considered a healthy, fair process, and its word is accepted as scripture.

Contrast this with the Baseball Hall of Fame voting process. It also consists of sportswriters … but that’s where the similarities end. Last year, 519 people voted, and they were from all over the spectrum. Once you have a vote—much easier to procure than one for the NFL Hall of Fame—you have it for life, even if you haven’t covered baseball for years. You do not have to make your ballots public—last year, 125 voters did—nor even let anyone know you have the vote at all.

With that many voters, a 75 percent requirement for entry to the Hall (and no minimum requirement for inductees, though there is a maximum number of people you can vote for, for reasons no one understands) and dozens upon dozens voters who haven’t actively been involved in the sport since the ‘70s (if not earlier), you’re bound to have conflict—and the Baseball Hall is nothing but conflict. It has, essentially, turned into the House of Representatives, except you need 75 percent to pass anything. It’s all about different factions lining up in their corners: The No PED Crowd, The Sabermetric Crowd, The Anti-Sabermetric Crowd, The New Yorkers, The Young Turks, The Old Guard, The Barry Bonds Or No One Extremists, The I Left A Blank Ballot Out Of Some Deranged Form Of Protest Cranks. And every election seasons features all of these people screaming at each other, unable to come to much more than the most basic consensus. Don’t be confused by the four players being elected this year: Most observers think the ballot is still overstuffed, even if you (foolishly, I’d argue, but I don’t want to get yelled at anymore, either) omit anyone with PED stains or accusations. The entire system is so broken that ESPN’s Buster Olney, one of the most respected baseball journalists in the country, vowed this year to abstain from voting until the process is fixed. Olney is as qualified to vote for the Hall of Fame as anyone on the planet, and he isn’t going to do it because it’s all such a mess.

The reason is: Democracy! The baseball process that’s meant to be more inclusive has turned out to be disheveled madness, because the franchise has been so vastly expanded that it’s impossible to get anything done. Bias is fine in voting, but not if everyone has entirely different personal biases that get in the way of any sort of objective assessment they were brought in to instill in the first place. The Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are a consortium of people coming together to make a decision; the Baseball Hall of Fame voters are a mass of individuals talking as if there’s no one else in the room. Because there isn’t.

It may be more “fair” to have the Baseball Hall of Fame voting process in its current form—but it’s ruining the Hall, suffocating it in its own self-importance. Democracy may work in the real world, but in Hall of Fame voting, it’s anarchy.