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Never Mind The Pro Bowl, Abolish The Hall of Fame

Within a week each winter, NFL backslapping manifests in public in its usual gaudy way. First comes the Pro Bowl, this year oddly accompanied with a lack of calls for its shelving. And then, we have the award for which the often dubiously-justified honour of a Pro Bowl nomination is considered currency: the Hall of Fame.

What Are Halls of Fame for?

In Steven Goldman’s excellent piece on the Baseball Hall of Fame, he asked a simple question: what story does it want to tell? Baseball more than most sports is stricken with recent narratives, particularly around the PED era. Goldman makes the comparison that the Smithsonian Museum might not display all its art at once, but pick and choose to frame a narrative. The idea is, art in context can make statements about other art, and provoke a wider suite of thoughts and ideas.

Halls of Fame as physical objects are museums – in fact there’ll be a substantial cluster of folk to whom they’re the only museums they want to visit. They’re museums of the history of their sport, or of their type of music, or whatever. Sure, they’re a curiously American phenomenon. When Radiohead guitarist Ed O’Brien was interviewed about their not being selected for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, he was merely nonplussed. We have museums, though few which look at modern popular culture. Beyond something much-reviled and borderline ignored like Sports Personality of the Year, we don’t really have nationally accepted cultural best-of rankings. So to us, the Hall of Fame is just this weird American concept of an annual popularity contest. Not a museum.

What is the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

So, for £20 (exchange rates as of January 2019), you get a reasonably comprehensive exhibition of pro football. Focusing on the NFL, it’s the expected collection of shirts and memorabilia, Super Bowl history and enshrinees telling their story. There’s even a holographic theatre. Above all, it’s as comprehensive as any Pro Football museum is going to get, by sheer dint of it being de facto in partnership with the NFL.

Except – ha – I’m talking about the museum, aren’t I? Most of us Brits will never want to go to Cleveland, Canton or Cooperstown. (Side note: why do all Halls of Fame seem to be in places beginning with “C”?). Heck, most American fans will probably never visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Most Ohians probably won’t! It took 45 years for the Hall of Fame to hit 10 million visitors. 10.76 million people watched Jaguars-Titans in Week 14 of 2018. Jags-Titans! Visiting the Hall of Fame just isn’t on most peoples’ itinerary. But when it comes to who should be in the Hall of Fame? Well, that’s when the strong feelings come out.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, OH. (Photo via Facebook.com/ProFootballHoF)

A Brief Diversion To The Ballon d’Or

A few years ago, I went to a Q&A session launching an issue of Jonathan Wilson’s excellent The Blizzard soccer quarterly. Among the panel was France Football’s Philippe Auclair. Auclair’s a fascinating chap, but it was more the insight he offered into France Football’s relationship with the Ballon d’Or that intrigued. The Ballon d’Or was the World Player of the Year for the pre-Internet era. It didn’t reward the ‘best’, instead seeking to strike a balance between that and someone relatively unsung who deserved gushing praise.

Consequently, the first award went to Stanley Matthews over Alfredo di Stefano. Scrolling down the list of winners includes players by today’s standards unknown, alongside the greats. The list tells a better story of football through history than you get alternating between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (which they did in later years). In fact, that was the subject of Auclair – and France Football’s –  gripe. They felt associating the Ballon d’Or with FIFA had in some way denatured the award. It eschewed telling the story of great-but-overlooked footballers to focus on star power.

The Ballon d’Or winners’ roll is a museum of great footballers, often different from the historical best and all the better for it. So is the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

Ranking The Best Vs Describing The Game

There are a few ways voters could define ‘great’. For instance some will look for statistical greatness. Some for awards, trophies and notable victories. Others will go by “feel”, and some few may look at players who revolutionise a position. All are important in a museum context, of course. All have the potential to tell the story of the game. The problem is, all will not be included.

The voting system – with only 5 “modern day” players admitted each year, and the requirement to be five years retired – doesn’t help. The latter can cause fleeting greatness to be forgotten. It can lead to revolutionary play that is quickly copied and surpassed to be internally downgraded. The former is the bigger problem though. An arbitrary limit on greatness made for voters subject to whims of what positional play is fashionable does not lead to a coherent story of the game. Furthermore, what happens if multiple deserving players from the same position are up any given year. This year’s nominee list has 3 safeties and 3 guards. Unfashionable positions. What if all three of either position are vital as a group to understanding that position and how it developed? There would surely be next-to-no-chance they’re all enshrined.

Therefore, if you think that unfashionable positions are underrepresented, it follows that others are over-represented. In a few years time, the 2004 drafted quarterbacks will be potential enshrinees. Rivers, Eli Manning and co will have spent most of their career in the shadow of Brady, Peyton Manning, Brees etc. Calls from fans for their inclusion will be loud. You might end up with 6 or so quarterbacks from a given season in the Hall of Fame, while next to no guards, or defensive tackles, or punters are in there. Mind you, there are only currently two quarterbacks in the Hall of Fame who’ve played since 2001, so maybe that’s the wrong high horse.

Does The Museum Define The Game?

Earlier, I talked about those three guards. For the purposes of NFL – or heck, the sport in general – it doesn’t make any difference if Alan Faneca or Steve Hutchinson are the better guard. Fans can claim minor bragging rights that they had the marginally better player if they like. But I don’t think they’ll likely do that. What good does it do anyone if one gets one vote more than the other and gets enshrined? Does anyone win in that scenario? Or does anyone win if voters decide “actually, let’s vote for cornerbacks this year”?

A museum of the sport would be doing a good job placing them – and Kevin Mawae, and anyone else you’d care to mention – side by side, telling the story of interior offensive line play through the 2000s, for example. However, in reality, one or more might get a gold helmet, a short blurb, and that’ll be that. Maybe I’m the only person who’d spend 15 minutes at an exhibit watching great interior blocking. But that’s the point! Vast swathes of the Victoria & Albert Museum look dull to the uninitiated, but fascinating to the curious observer. Museums can’t generally make people who don’t care, care. But they can help develop a note of interest into something much deeper!

Unconscious (And Conscious) Bias

Not that it’s an argument either way, but the Hall of Fame does encourage people to choose weird hills to die on. Take Peter King, for example. I’ll admit I don’t have the best opinion of him. But surely we can all agree that fighting tooth and nail to defend convicted rapist Darren Sharper’s right to be in the Hall of Fame is ill-judged, at best. In this case, some might not believe character issues are separate from the actual footballer player. Think of it as “love the art, hate the artist”, which is why otherwise decent people still listen to the Smiths, or Brand New. Given Peter King then went all-in on another potential future Hall-of-Famer – Antonio Brown – after this season undermines his point. Not least when he plays for a team quarterbacked by someone who to be disingenuously euphemistic has had issues of his own in the past.

Voters may ascribe much meaning to Antonio Brown’s late-season controvery (Charles LeClaire/ USA Today)

I don’t really know where I’m going with this. Like where Ray Lewis or Marvin Harrison don’t have their character questioned in the way Terrell Owens did. I don’t really know what to make of it, other than that it sniffs of double-standards and arbitrary values. Could you have told the story of wide receiver excellence in the 2000s without Terrell Owens and Randy Moss? Mmm, doubt it. But I’m not sure that you could without Marvin Harrison, either. It just feels strange that a museum designed to tell the story of the game should get nit-picky about character traits for no other reason than to give a bunch of superannuated stuffed shirts validation.

An Alternative Hall of Fame

For all that I’ve tried to hang the Hall of Fame out to dry here, don’t close it! Of course you don’t abolish it! I just wanted to get your attention with a headline, because I’m Part Of The Problem. Besides which, you don’t close museums, no matter what they’re on. Even the weird creationist ones in some of the more obstinate American communities. It’s all about knowledge and ideas, though you should go to the V&A before the weird creationist ones.

I just want to remove the arbitrary ranking from it, and stop it being a representation of the implicit bias of voters. I want it to challenge itself, to tell a story. Maybe even, like the Smithsonian, to know it doesn’t have to have every piece of art on display at all times. For instance, maybe sometimes you want the David Tyree and Julian Edelman Super Bowl catches. Maybe at other times, you can have an exhibit of people who revolutionised safety play, of how formations changed. Maybe these things are already there! In which case, congratulations, you’ve found the house built on sand I’m currently living in.

Realistically, you can’t go back. You can’t remove enshrinement ceremonies or drastically change qualifying criteria. Though an alternative might be, say you launch that “Interior Linemen Play in the 2000s” exhibit. And say you highlight Hutchinson, Faneca, Mawae, Jeff Saturday and such, and they still get their version of an enshrinement ceremony. But you know it’s been decided through “importance to the game” over “validation in a popularity contest”. We have a myriad of ways to understand what’s the most popular anything in the world, but we need museums to tell us a story of what’s important, and why.

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