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Thursday, February 4, 2010
Hall of Fame selection processes

By Matt Friedrichs

"Ladies and gentlemen, Jerry Rice. Any questions? No? Thank you."

When voters meet to discuss and vote on Pro Football Hall of Fame nominees Saturday in Miami, the discussion about Rice, the longtime San Francisco 49er, could be that brief. Some Hall hopefuls, even when compared to a short list of other incredibly accomplished players, are no-brainers. There's no need for debate.

Jerry Rice
Jerry Rice said he never played a football game on Thanskgiving.

Others fall into the grayer categories. When the voters attempt to distinguish between the greatest and the merely great by poring over statistics, championships, game-changing plays and memories, they get caught in the crossfire.

We're at the high point of Hall of Fame season. The National Baseball Hall of Fame announced Andre Dawson as its newest inductee -- only inductee, this year -- in January, to the requisite outrage from fans who passionately believe in the Cooperstown credentials of Bert Blyleven and Roberto Alomar, among others. Football's inductees will be named this week, and it is likely that some candidates deemed worthy by many will be left out. Russ Grimm? Richard Dent? Roger Craig?

The Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class will be announced at the Final Four, and the Hockey Hall of Fame class will be announced in June.

Inevitably, in the aftermath of the announcements, a hue and cry will be raised in protest. The critics will question the process, the qualification standards and -- mostly -- the intelligence of the voters. Expect to hear it all again Saturday.

Do any of the four major professional Halls of Fame ever get it right? Even half-right?

The voters and processes vary by Hall, from basketball's largely confidential procedure to baseball's public vote-counts. But all four use an experienced selector pool to make their decisions. As described by the Halls, voters are required to have spent years engaged with their respective sports (and meet the 10,000 hour rule for an expert that Malcolm Gladwell cites in his book "Outliers").

In anticipation of the new honorees and the corresponding hubbub about worthiness and snubs, we reviewed and ranked the four selection processes. Who does it best? Read on.

Who votes on induction?

Our rankings:

1. Hockey: An 18-member selection committee includes media members, former players, coaches and executives. Members serve three-year terms and can be reappointed. The names of all members are public.

2. Baseball: Baseball Writers' Association of America members who have been active baseball writers for at least 10 years. This year, approximately 600 ballots were distributed. The voter list is confidential, but many writers, including those who work for ESPN, publish their votes publicly. The Hall has separate committees that meet every other year to consider players who are no longer on the ballot, managers, umpires and executives.

3. Football: One media member from each of the 32 NFL cities (New York has two -- one for the Jets and one for the Giants) and 11 at-large members, also from the media, serve until they retire or resign. A final member from the Pro Football Writers of America serves a two-year term. The names of all voters are public.

4. Basketball: A 24-member committee includes representatives from all levels of the game, media members, executives and Hall of Famers. Members serve no more than three years in a row. Members serve confidentially.

Ranking explanation: Hockey fields the smallest panel, but it represents a broad spectrum of the sport. Baseball, by sheer volume, moderates the biases of individual voters. Basketball isn't much different than hockey, but not knowing the names of voters limits our ability to judge.

How are candidates on the final ballot determined?

Our rankings:

1. Football: Anybody can nominate somebody by contacting the Hall. To make the preliminary list, nominees need a minimum of five years of experience and to have made at least one all-league team. Finalists the previous year who received at least four votes are automatically on the list. Voters narrow the list to 25 by mail vote in the fall, and narrow it again to 15 by mail. A nine-member committee made up of veteran members of the overall committee nominates two senior candidates.

Andre Dawson
Andre Dawson crossed the 75 percent threshold in his ninth year on the ballot.

2. Basketball: Anybody can nominate a player via a form available from the Hall. The nominees are divided into four categories. A nine-member North American committee can select a maximum of 10 individuals, plus one or two teams, for the final ballot. A seven-member veterans committee can select as many as two people, plus teams. A seven-member women's committee can select as many as two people, plus teams. A seven-member international committee can select as many as two people, plus teams. The full list of nominees is not made public, but many of the more prominent names are. The final ballot is announced during the NBA All-Star Weekend -- coming up later this month.

3. Baseball: A six-member BBWAA screening committee determines who is on the ballot. It includes any player nominated by two committee members. The players must have played at least 10 seasons and have been retired for at least five (but no more than 15) seasons, and cannot be on MLB's ineligible list (see: Pete Rose and Shoeless Joe Jackson). Any player who receives less than 5 percent of the vote is dropped from the next ballot. The ballot is made public in November when it is sent to the voters.

4. Hockey: Anybody can recommend a name through the Hall. Information about those suggestions is provided to voters. Each voter can nominate one player, one "builder" (a coach, a team or league official, an owner -- essentially, anyone who doesn't wear skates) and one referee/linesman for the final ballot. Nominees are not made public.

Ranking explanation: Football's sifting process engages voters multiple times during the year. Basketball nicely breaks the candidates into separate pools for closer scrutiny. Baseball's list is easy to understand. Hockey keeps the lights in the rink turned off.

How is the final vote conducted?

1. (tie) Football: Senior candidates are presented by one of the committee members. Voters vote yes or no by secret ballot. Candidates must receive 80 percent of the votes to be selected. The 15 contemporary candidates are presented. Secret votes narrow that list to 10, and then to six names. Voters vote yes or no on the final six names. A candidate must receive 80 percent of the vote to be selected.

1. (tie) Hockey: Candidates are presented by the committee member who nominated them. Vote is by confidential ballot. Candidates must receive 75 percent of the vote. There may be multiple rounds of voting. As many as four men, two women, two "builders" (one if there's a referee/linesman) and two referees/linesmen (one if there's a builder) can be elected.

3. Baseball: Vote is by mail. Voters may vote for as many as 10 names on the final ballot. Candidates must receive 75 percent of ballots cast to be selected.

4. Basketball: Vote is by confidential ballot. Candidates must receive 18 of 24 votes to be selected.

Ranking explanation: Discussion, even in private, puts hockey and football on top. (Imagine an auditorium packed with baseball writers responding as someone makes a case for Mark McGwire.) Some baseball writers at least engage one another and fans by writing about their process, and public vote counts raise tantalizing questions about those who don't. Basketball is once again playing behind locked doors.

Our final ranking

1. Football
2. Hockey
3. Baseball
4. Basketball

Despite the qualification of the voters (a basketball official said that one year, he was in a room with 600 years of basketball experience), each of the Halls draws criticism.

Hockey Hall of Fame
Brett Hull, Lou Lamoriello, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille and Steve Yzerman were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in November.

The open-ended terms of football and baseball voters can provide continuity and consistency. (Check the baseball writers who cite past votes in justifying their decisions on first-ballot Hall of Famers.) But that also means changing opinions about the game, and new voices have less impact. Thus, the broadsides about which players from the steroids era deserve to be in Cooperstown are likely to continue for some time.

Hockey and basketball fight complaints about their lack of transparency -- that's our biggest critique, too -- by noting that their confidential votes limit the lobbying their committees face and potentially open the doors to new or changing ideas about Hall candidates.

Former players such as baseball's Blyleven (who keeps inching closer to induction and missed again this year by only five votes) and football's Harry Carson (who was elected in 2006, two years after he asked to have his name taken off the ballot) also have expressed frustration at the highs and lows, not to mention voters, involved.

All four Halls attempt to honor the best in the game while recording history that is a personal memory for fans. And that personal passion can be misleading or immune to logic. Sportswriter Joe Posnanski recently described his love for Kenny Stabler. As he explored why "The Snake" wasn't in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he checked the numbers and realized his love was more a creation of NFL Films than the quarterback's statistical accomplishments.

Do the voters and the Halls enshrine the best of the game? It's a never-ending argument given the personal relationship between fans and their teams, between players and coaches, between media members and the players they cover.

Matt Friedrichs is a commentary editor at You can reach him at