NFL’s Hall of Fame voting process shrouded in secrecy

This is my Friday feature on the NFL Hall of Fame voting process.

Six-hundred-and-eight journalists were eligible to vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame this year. Thirty-seven of them didn’t vote at all.

Forty-six journalists vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

That’s it.

One voter represents each NFL city, and 14 voters are at-large. Once a year on the Saturday before the Super Bowl, they meet up at the Super Bowl city — this year they’ll be across a river — and they vote. They will meet Saturday in New York beginning at 7 a.m. local time.

Baseball voters do not meet up. They mail in a ballot from home.

In the 1970s and 1980s, every big newspaper and some not-so-big newspapers sent their beat writers to the Super Bowl no matter which teams were playing. It was easy for the voters to get to the Hall of Fame selection meeting. But some newspapers can’t afford to send their beat writers to every single Super Bowl these days. Some football voters pay their own way to go to the meeting. That’s how serious they are about their duties.

The meeting starts with presentations for the finalists. Frank Cooney, the voter who represents Oakland, will make a presentation on Saturday for former Raiders wide receiver Tim Brown, explaining why he should be inducted into the Hall of Fame. Brown is the sixth-leading receiver of all-time, but he mostly played for bad Raiders teams and he’s been turned down four times. Some people consider his stats empty, inconsequential. On a bad team someone has to put good stats, no great honor in that.

“He played for a team that was in disarray,” Cooney said over the phone, making his case for Brown. “He didn’t have Terry Bradshaw throwing him the ball. He didn’t play with Hall of Famers. He had 19 different quarterbacks and 10 different offensive coordinators.”

Sometimes presentations are unnecessary. Like for Joe Montana.

Ira Miller, an at-large voter, gave Montana’s presentation. Miller’s first line to the committee was, “Do you guys want to take a bathroom break, or do you want me to talk?”

“There are no set criteria,” said Cooney. “Some voters are swayed too much by guys who made big plays in big games, like Lynn Swann. He was a finalist 14 times and finally got in. He was a conspicuous player on an extraordinary team. Me, I had to think that a player was a Hall of Famer when I saw him play. I don’t have to be convinced.”

The lack of clear criteria has led to controversy, sometimes concerning local candidates. Like Jim Plunkett. He is the only eligible quarterback who has won two Super Bowls and is not in the Hall of Fame.

Controversial.

Raiders head coach John Madden won one Super Bowl and is in the Hall of Fame, but Raiders head coach Tom Flores won two Super Bowls and is not in.

Controversial.

Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann won four Super Bowls and is in. Raiders receiver Cliff Branch won three, had 3,000 more receiving yards than Swann but is not in.

Controversial.

“Can you write the history of the game without this guy?” said Miller. “That’s my criteria.

“There is a preliminary ballot of about 100 people. Anyone can nominate anyone to be on the preliminary ballot. Then, we whittle it down to 25 with an up-or-down vote. Then we whittle it down to 15, then to 10, then to five. A candidate must receive at least 80 percent of the votes to get inducted. A minimum of four candidates must be inducted, and a maximum of seven — five modern-day candidates and two senior candidates.”

A senior candidate is someone who has been retired for a minimum of 25 years and was not inducted as a modern-day candidate.

And the candidates are not just players. Coaches and executives can be candidates as well.

“They should create a separate category for non-players,” said at-large voter Howard Balzer. “It’s hard enough to compare a tackle to a quarterback. Trying to compare any player to an executive is ridiculous and not fair.”

“The voting process can be improved,” said Miller. “There should be a larger number of people who vote. And they should move the meeting to another weekend when people aren’t so busy.”

Currently, the NFL has shoe-horned the meeting between the Super Bowl celebrations and the game. The weekend is about the Super Bowl, and the Hall of Fame meeting is an afterthought in comparison.

Some voters want the process to be more transparent. It is a secret who votes for whom. In baseball, it’s no secret. All voters must print and sign their name on their ballot. In football, a voter could smile and nod at the selection meeting, even say the player should get inducted, and then vote against him. No one ever would know.

“The first time Bob Hayes was on the ballot, I presented him,” said Cooney. “We had serious, honest conversations all day Saturday and into the night. We never heard anything negative about him in the meeting, but he didn’t make it.

“Silent assassins were in the room.”

Grant Cohn writes sports columns and the “Inside the 49ers” blog for the Press Democrat’s website. You can reach him at grantcohn@gmail.com.

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