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Sports Then and Now

Selection of Jack Butler Brings Out the Best and Worst in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Posted on February 04, 2012 by Dean Hybl

Though he retired in 1959, it took until 2012 for Jack Butler to get serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Let me start this post by saying that after watching his gleeful interview during the NFL Network Hall of Fame show I am pleased that 84-year-old Jack Butler is able to enjoy his moment as a new member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

However, in my opinion it is the selection of Butler that best illustrates what is wrong with the selection process for the Hall of Fame.

If given the chance to ask one question to the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee it simply would be: “Why is an 84-year-old who last played in the NFL in 1959 being selected to the Hall of Fame in 2012?”

I’m not really sure whether Butler deserves to be in the Hall of Fame or not, but I am sure that the Hall of Fame selectors did a bad job in handling this selection.

Because, given that Butler had never previously even been a Hall of Fame finalist, the voters either were woefully negligent in not considering him before now or they caved in to a recent campaign by fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers to get Butler into the Hall of Fame.

Either way, the true loser in this scenario is the integrity of the Hall of Fame.

This marks the third straight year that a senior candidate that had never previously been a Hall of Fame finalist suddenly found himself not just as a finalist, but as one of those chosen to enter the Hall of Fame.

You can argue all day regarding the individual merits of Butler, Les Richter, Dick LeBeau and Floyd Little, but I have a hard time understanding why if they really deserved to be in the Hall of Fame that each one was eligible for the Hall of Fame for more than 30 years (nearly 50 for Richter and Butler) before they even made it into the discussion room.

If they were deserving candidates, then someone did a pretty bad job screening candidates over the years. And, I certainly am not ruling that out of the equation.

I previously have written several columns listing the players I felt were most deserving of being inducted into the Hall of Fame, but are not yet in Canton. Among that list are three candidates that I think all deserve to be in the HOF, but have never even been finalists in Cliff Branch, Chuck Howley and Drew Pearson.

Former Oakland Raiders great Cliff Branch is among a handful of deserving Hall of Fame candidates that have never been selection finalists.

Unfortunately, the Hall of Fame selectors of today are paying for two issues from the past. The first is a system that has always been done behind closed doors and allowed for biases among committee members against individuals, teams and positions to dictate who received a bust and who was left waiting.

The second issue, which really is a result of the first problem, is that for many years the Hall of Fame selectors seemed determined to keep the number of players in the Hall of Fame as small as possible. This has led to a back-log of great players who now have been out of the NFL for 30 or more years and have never received their due consideration or who have been forgotten as new players have become eligible.

Since going to the current finalist system in 1970, the Hall of Fame has been able to induct as many as seven people each year. Yet, that total has been reached only six times, with two of those coming in 2010 and 2011.

From 1972 through 1986, the largest class of inductees was five and twice only three players were selected.

After twice having classes of seven inductees in a four year span between 1987 and 1990 (with those classes surrounding four-member classes in 1988 and 1989), the pattern of smaller classes returned for the next decade as there was just one class with six inductees between 1991 and 2001.

Then after a seven-member class in 2001 gave hope that the selectors might start dealing with the growing back-log of great players not in the Hall of Fame, they reverted to previous form with four-player classes in 2004 and 2005.

It would be one thing if the selectors had been evaluating different players each year and deciding their merit, but instead it seems that the system is more focused on making players wait until their “turn” than in bringing multiple players through the evaluation process and deciding their merits.

Of the 66 players, coaches and administrators who were Hall of Fame finalists during the decade of the 1970s, 55 eventually were inducted into the Hall of Fame, but only 15 were chosen in their first year of eligibility.

Since the back-to-back four Hall of Famer years of 2004 and 2005, 25 people who were eligible for induction during that time have now been selected for the Hall of Fame.

My contention with all of these scenarios is that these players never added a tackle, rushing yard or touchdown to their resume during those extra years, so what made them more worthy later than they were in the earlier years?

Unfortunately, what ends up happening is that players or coaches who were worthy of being in the Hall of Fame have waited so long for induction that by the time they actually get into the Hall of Fame they either have passed away or are in failing health and unable to enjoy their special moment. That was the case last year for Les Richter, who was 79 when he passed away six months before his selection into the HOF.

I am glad that at age 84 Jack Butler is healthy enough to enjoy his Hall of Fame moment. But if a player is indeed worthy of this honor, I contend it is the responsibility of the Hall of Fame committee to make sure former players get this recognition while in their 40s or 50s instead of waiting until their later years. Especially given that so many football players don’t end up living to be in their 70s and 80s.

In my opinion, the most obvious omission among former players for the Hall of Fame is former Green Bay Packer lineman Jerry Kramer. Kramer was a Hall of Fame finalist in his first year of eligibility in 1974 and then over the next 23 years was a finalist 10 times without being selected. For some reason, he was last a Hall of Fame finalist in 1997.

But, even though I think he is a worthy candidate, at least Kramer had his candidacy vetted during the years in which many of the committee members were people who actually saw him play. That hasn’t been the case for Butler, Richter, Little and LeBeau as all were never finalists during their regular eligibility period and were chosen as senior candidates.

When looking across all positions, I think you can easily argue that there are at least 25-30 former players who are deserving of Hall of Fame induction, but do not yet have a plaque in Canton.

As I have outlined, the primary reason for this is a long-time systematic problem with the selection process.

With the Hall of Fame turning 50 in 2013, I see it as the perfect opportunity for the administration to right many wrongs and have a large class to unclog the pipeline and ensure that anyone who played prior to 1985 and is worthy of Hall of Fame selection is given a bust in the Hall of Fame.

Then, I would institute a 15-year policy like in baseball meaning that a player would be eligible for the Hall of Fame only for 15 years and then by the end of that time they would either be in the Hall of Fame and able to annually enjoy their place among the all-time greats or they would no longer be eligible and able to go on with the rest of their life without annually wondering if this might be the year.

That process would still give voters some chance to throw their weight around by making players wait for a few years, but it would hopefully also spur them to have meaningful discussions and evaluations of all potential players from an era without having to compare players from far different eras of football.

Of course it is highly unlikely that such radical a change would ever be made, but I believe it would help make induction in the Pro Football Hall of Fame an even more meaningful honor and ensure that a greater number of inductees are able to enjoy the annual festivities.

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