On the list of nominees for the Pro Football Hall of Fame released last week, one name stands out: Darren Sharper. Should Sharper be elected, he is unlikely to turn up at the induction ceremony next summer. He is serving 20 years in prison for drugging and raping women.
Sharper was a five-time Pro Bowl safety in a 14-year career with the Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints. But his nomination stirred outrage because of his criminal history. That outrage was perhaps prompted by a misunderstanding of the rules for induction into the Hall.
The most famous Hall of Fame, baseball’s, has a “character clause.” Rule 5 states: “Voting shall be based upon the player’s record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.”
It is those references to integrity, sportsmanship and character that have contributed to keeping out players who clearly performed at a Hall of Fame level on the field, from the game fixer Joe Jackson to Pete Rose, who placed wagers on baseball, to the modern players linked to steroids, like Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. (The virulent racist Ty Cobb is among those of questionable character who were voted in anyway.)
In contrast, there is no “character clause” in the rules for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sharper’s inclusion on the list of nominees is also perhaps less laudatory than it seems at first. Anyone can nominate someone for the Hall of Fame — a news media member, a former player, a fan, you. The only criteria is that the player played for five seasons, made one All-Pro team or Pro Bowl and has been retired for five full seasons. As a result, this year’s list is 94 names long.
“The Hall of Fame does not nominate anyone,” Joe Horrigan, its executive vice president, said. “That is done by the public or official selectors. This is merely a list of names received by the Hall.” Horrigan would not say who, or how many people, nominated Sharper.
Entry to the Pro Football Hall of Fame is oddly enough a bit like winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Government officials, professors and think tank directors can all offer up names for that award. Hundreds of people make the list, which always includes a diverse set of people with little or no chance to win. It is not made public, but Donald Trump and Susan Sarandon were reportedly among this year’s nominees. Adolf Hitler got a nomination in 1939, although the Swedish politician who named him said he did not do so seriously. Stalin was a two-time nominee, in 1945 and 1948.
Sharper was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame last year as well, but the outcry was far greater this time because in the interim he was sentenced to 18 years by a federal court and 20 years by a Louisiana court after pleading guilty to charges of slipping drugs to women so he could rape them.
He has a long way to go before he makes the Hall.
A group of 48 members of the news media will winnow the field to 25, 15, 10 and eventually five, on whom an up-or-down vote will be taken. Each must receive 80 percent of the vote to be named. Last year, Sharper did not make it past the first winnowing.
Another controversial figure, Lawrence Taylor, a legend on the field, was voted in in his first year of eligibility despite a long history of drug abuse.
“We have a very brief criteria for election,” Horrigan said. The rules say: “The only criteria for election to the Hall of Fame are a nominee’s achievements and contributions as a player, a coach, or a contributor in professional football in the United States of America.”
Even at those Halls of Fame that do not specifically call for character as a selection criterion, the voters are human. Many may consider a multiplicity of factors for their selections.
“In the end, it’s up to their individual conscience,” Horrigan said. “We try to keep the focus on what they did as a player, but we won’t legislate the selector’s conscience.”
Still, after the outcry over Sharper, Horrigan did not rule out changes in the future. “Every year we review the process and make amendments. The circumstances and eligibility of candidates will certainly be discussed.”
In baseball, a screening committee of six sports writers reviews potential candidates: two of six votes puts a player on the ballot. Crucially, any player on baseball’s “ineligible list” cannot be nominated: This includes some old-time game fixers along with Jackson and Rose.
While the Basketball Hall of Fame does not have a written character clause, when the nine selectors — media members and Hall of Famers — meet, they do discuss off-court issues, said its president, John Doleva.
“Eighty-five, 95 percent of it is on-court performance, but there is some attention paid to character,” Doleva said. “There’s no hard and fast rule that says if someone is charged with a crime they are not eligible.”
The Hockey Hall of Fame has codified its criteria: “Playing ability, sportsmanship, character and contributions to his or her team or teams and to the game of hockey in general.”
So it is extraordinarily unlikely that Sharper will be named to the Hall of Fame next spring, or any time soon. But if he does make the cut, he will join an illustrious group of players like Y.A. Tittle, Jim Brown, Joe Montana.
And O.J. Simpson.