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HOF voters have one job - enshrine the ‘finest players the game has produced’

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Fortunately this year they got it right - but it’s not because the process is a good one.

Tennessee Titans v Denver Broncos Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images
*editor’s note: We wrote this story Friday but feared there could be backlash against Steve Atwater and chose to publish after the Hall of Fame vote. We’re thrilled it’s in the wake of Atwater getting his rightful place in Canton.

Since Steve Atwater has finally been named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, Broncos Country can take a deep breath, exhale and feel the pride we all deserve.

But given that Atwater had to wait 16 years to finally hear the knock on the door still means the process leaves a lot to be desired.

And Mile High Report inadvertently got tangled up in this dumb process on Thursday when one of the voting members took aim at a tweet by Adam Malnati promoting Atwater for the Hall of Fame.

It appeared there might have be some confusion about just exactly what the Pro Football Hall of Fame voters are meant to decide.

From the Hall’s website, the official charge to the voting members is as follows:

The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 48-person Selection Committee is charged with the vital task of continuing to be sure that new enshrinees are the finest the game has produced.

The finest the game has produced.

As Denver Broncos fans, we are used to Hall of Fame “slights” — whether it’s how long it took for Terrell Davis to get his bust in Canton; or that Pat Bowlen’s eventual enshrinement took a backseat to an inferior GM, thus making it impossible for the ailing Bowlen to understand the accolade when his time did come; or how Steve Atwater was overlooked for far too many years for it to be justified as “just not his time yet;” or worse, how little attention Randy Gradishar has ever garnered from voting members even though he led one of the most menacing defenses in football history as one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

But an exchange on Twitter on Thursday night between Hall-of-Fame at large voter Jason Cole and MHR writer Adam Malnati (and me) proved that our hypersensitivity to bias is for real — and even draws attention to the bigger issue of a seriously flawed process for electing players to the Hall of Fame.

Some background

Many of you are aware that we have been tweeting every day each of the 27 stories we wrote last year in our “27 for 27” push to get Steve Atwater into the Hall of Fame (and we will most definitely take partial credit for helping him get there, by the way!)

The unfortunate reality of today’s selection process is that players whose names are in the media more often have a greater chance of being recognized as worthy for Canton (more on that egregious fact later).

Friday marked the 27th day in the series, so we thought going back to each tweet and tagging the Hall of Fame voting members on Twitter would help put those “reasons Atwater belongs in the Hall” front and center, ensuring Atwater’s name and accomplishments could not be overlooked when they went into the voting process on Saturday morning.

So Adam jump started the planned effort by retweeting Broncos’ PR guru Patrick Smyth:

Jason Cole, one of 42 voters tagged in the thread, replied to the tweet with, “For the record, these are not very effective messages.”

I countered with, “Because you’ve already made up your mind???” to which he responded, “No. It’s because when you use the word ludicrous, that’s insulting to the people who work hard at the process. It means you don’t understand how it works and you don’t take any time to talk with any of us. You’re just declaring we’re stupid.”

You can probably surmise how quickly this went downhill, but not before Adam tried to reason with him that our statement was about the fact that Atwater was not already in the Hall of Fame, not calling out any one voter.

And in Cole’s process of completely misreading the point and taking it as a personal affront that wasn’t, he highlighted his recent article as justification for just how seriously he takes his role as a voter.

The post is nothing more than a survey he has been doing for eight years of former players, current and former coaches and current and former executives — you know, people who are clearly objective historians of the game — and he asks them to choose their five selections for the Hall of Fame from the 15 finalists.

Nothing is wrong with this sort of survey. In fact, it is an interesting exercise to see how others would evaluate the current list of HOF candidates.

Except there is something wrong with it because - by his own admission - this unscientific survey is serving as an actual research point for Cole when choosing the Hall-of-Fame inductees. He is letting a survey of his chosen players/coaches/GMs help dictate who he should vote for rather than considering the facts about the players themselves.

Incidentally, in his survey, Troy Palomalu was a clear favorite with 266 votes — and I daresay most fans of pro football believe Palomalu is deserving. The All-Pro safety had 32 interceptions, 107 batted balls, 14 forced fumbles and 12 sacks in his career, was an eight-time Pro Bowler, four-time All-Pro and a two-time Super Bowl champ.

Rounding out the top five vote-getters behind Palomalu were Steve Atwater (143); Isaac Bruce (141); Edgerrin James (131); and Tony Boselli (126). John Lynch was seventh with 121 votes and Alan Faneca eighth with 98.

But Cole is clearly using other people’s views — as legitimate as they may be — to influence his vote. A vote, by the way, in which he claimed the “responsibility to do everything possible to get this right is enormous.”

Consider his own words on just how “enormously” he takes this responsibility:

“What this survey is best used for is breaking ties or figuring out who might be the best candidate at a certain position? [sic]

“For instance, four years ago at this time, there was a difficult discussion over the candidacies of offensive tackles Orlando Pace and Joe Jacoby. Both players had significant support and excellent presentations. However, Pace received almost twice as much support as Jacoby among people in this survey. In my mind, that swayed the vote clearly toward Pace.”

So because a survey of probably great but clearly biased former players had chosen Pace, that was so obviously a good reason to choose him???

I have no problem with Pace being in the Hall of Fame.

I have a problem with reporters like Jason Cole being allowed to vote. He is taking this so seriously that instead of researching the players’ careers and their impact on the game and their teams, instead of finding something tangible about the two players in question as a deciding factor, something “Hall-of-Fame-worthy” to determine one player over another, he went to a poll he had conducted with a few hundred ex-players and coaches.

I understand the choices can be hard - very hard. But a voter who takes his job seriously would look within the players’ careers themselves to find the distinguishing marker. And not by comparison to other players on the ballot but by comparison to his peers at the time he was playing.

And then there was this gem in the story:

Don’t mistake this survey. It is not meant to be a straight ballot where the top five are the only ones I would consider. The difference between Steve Atwater getting 143 votes and Alan Faneca getting 98 is not substantial enough to make Atwater a shoe-in over Faneca.

Cole does end with the comment that “ultimately what matters most is the intense discussion that happens during the meeting.” Yet it’s hard to see from his own admissions how he believes that.

So when he freaked out over Adam’s opinionated-but-generic comment that “it’s ludicrous” Steve Atwater is not in the Hall of Fame, I can only wonder if it comes from internal guilt for not having chosen Atwater in previous opportunities?

The real issue, however

Despite Cole’s meltdown — and subsequent blocking of Adam and me despite rather cordial attempts to discuss his issue — the real problem has nothing to do with Jason Cole. He is the symptom, not the cause.

It has to do with a Hall-of-Fame selection/voting process that allows the Jason Coles of the sports world to choose inductees.

Unlike some, I don’t mind that sports reporters are the ones voting — though I would like to see the same number of sports historians added into the mix. Their more objective attention to greatness as well as a trained ability to analyze the information about players — especially those who played long before social media existed — would be a welcomed addition.

My biggest gripe is that so much of a player’s induction to the Hall relies on being “in the media” or “on our TV screens” just to have their names recognized.

Proof of this travesty is that Terrell Davis’ candidacy was taken much more seriously after he was a regular on NFL Network. I even believe that Atwater’s case has gotten stronger because he became a local broadcaster on Denver radio. Political research tells us that familiarity with a name is half the battle when voting.

And the over-reliance on a presentation — where a tech-savvy presenter could garner undue attention to a less-worthy player — is everything wrong with this. With this element, at least let players choose the guy who will advocate for them rather than relying on his local media’s representative.

I also take issue with only putting five players in each year. There are too many players from the early days - the days before some important stats were officially tallied, before prime-time television was a thing, long before social media was a way to promote a player - to think that five each year is going to do pro football justice.

To me, if a player deserves to be in - and that criteria of “the finest” should be stringent - then he deserves to be in, no matter who else is going in at his position, or from the same team, or anything else.

It shouldn’t be “balanced;” it should be the best.

And ultimately it should come down to real students of the game choosing the players who fit the Hall-of-Fame’s own criteria - the finest the game has produced.