Sharper's HOF case raises big issues

Pete Dougherty
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Darren Sharper is nominated for the 2016 NFL Hall of Fame

Someday Darren Sharper, or a player like him, could leave Pro Football Hall of Fame voters with a terrible choice.

The former Packers, Minnesota Vikings and New Orleans Saints safety had a long career in the NFL and impressive interception stats that warrant at least passing consideration for the Hall.

But he’s also an admitted serial rapist who this year began serving a nine-year prison sentence.

Sharper is eligible for the Hall for the first time this year, and this week he made the list of 108 modern-era nominees. That might shock many who follow the NFL.

But the Hall of Fame’s bylaws prohibit the 46 voters, who are members of the media, to consider a player’s off-field life in determining whether he’s Hall-worthy.

I’m a voter – each NFL market is represented by one voter, and there are an additional 14 at-large voters. So this is something I have to think about seriously.

Two points to start with. First, the Hall of Fame is a separate entity from the NFL. They work together for obvious reasons, but the Hall is a separate private organization, with its own board of trustees and leadership.

Second, here’s how Sharper became a nominee: In late February the Hall sent a preliminary list of candidates to the 46 selectors. Among them are all first-year eligible players — that is, players who have been retired for five years — who played at least five seasons and were named All-Pro, all-conference or to the Pro Bowl at least once. Sharper made the preliminary list because he was All-Pro twice and went to five Pro Bowls.

Once a first-time eligible player is on the preliminary list, he has to be nominated by one of the 46 selectors or someone in the public at large. So at least one selector or member of the public nominated Sharper. I did not.

In November, the selectors will vote for 25 of the 108 candidates, and the 25 who get the most votes will be semifinalists. In January, we'll vote for the top 15. Then the day before the Super Bowl the committee meets, cuts the list to 5, and votes up or down on those five for induction in the Hall.

So Sharper has a long, long way to go to even get to 25, let alone to become a finalist.

Sharper’s case is based mainly on two statistics: his 63 interceptions ties him for No. 7 on the NFL’s all-time list, and his 11 interceptions returned for touchdowns ties him for second all time.

To put that in context, of the top 10 players on the interceptions list, six are in the Hall, two (Ken Riley and Dave Brown) are not, and two haven’t been eligible (Sharper and Ed Reed).

So Sharper, based solely on that, is a viable candidate.

But football isn’t a stats game. It’s not like baseball. Numbers tell only part of the story. I covered Sharper for his career with the Packers (1997-04), and teammate and fellow safety LeRoy Butler for most of his. By the eyeball test it’s not close. Butler was the better player by far, and he’s not in the Hall even though he’s been eligible for several years.

Also, at a press conference before his induction in the Hall in August, former Packers general manager Ron Wolf said that Bobby Dillon is as Hall worthy as any former Packers player. That makes two safeties from the Packers alone who are more deserving than Sharper.

So I can safely say that Sharper wouldn’t get my vote regardless.

Now, that says nothing about whether his awful crimes should disqualify him. For now, the Hall’s bylaws say not only that they shouldn’t, but that they can’t.

I’m new as a selector – this year was my first – so I don’t know how often the Hall changes its bylaws, or whether that’s at all likely. And having voters consider off-field behavior brings up the extremely knotty problem of deciding where the line is.

But Sharper’s nomination, ill-fated though it may be even on its merits, brings the issue to fore at a time when violence against women finally has become a prominent issue in this country at large and the NFL in particular.

Maybe it’s time for the Hall to allow voters to reject a player for particularly heinous crimes.

I'd like to know your thoughts on the matter. You can comment on this story or tweet at me, @PeteDougherty.

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