Saturday’s Pro Football Hall of Fame deliberations really ought to be part of the NFL Network’s “Look Inside The Charnel House” series, because there will be more to chew on in that room for those 46 electors than you’ll see in the actual Superb Owl.
What is more, it got more interesting with the development that former Raider quarterback Ken Stabler’s autopsy showed a massive presence of CTE, the protein in the brain that has been linked to the kinds of repetitive cranial trauma often found in football players.
The class of finalists is not an overwhelming one after you accept Brett Favre as the no-brainer inductee, and by overwhelming, we mean “no debate needed” candidates. Tony Dungy, Kevin Green, Orlando Pace, Marvin Harrison, Kurt Warner, Don Coryell, Terrell Davis, Morten Andersen, Alan Faneca, John Lynch, Steve Atwater, Edgerrin James, Joe Jacoby and Dick Stanfel are the others, and all have their cases to be made and have rebutted.
And then there are our three contributions to the festival of arguing (Stanfel was born, grew up and went to high school and college in San Francisco, and coached for the 49ers for a bit in the early ‘70s but is really a candidate because of his work as a player in Detroit and Washington) – Stabler, former 49er wide receiver Terrell Owens and former 49er owner and hyperactive bon vivant Eddie DeBartolo The Younger.
Stabler, the Oakland Raider quarterback during the team’s glory years and who passed last year of colon cancer at 69, was already considered a candidate for the Hall that will create the greatest amount of debate. Now, with the New York Times story by Pulitzer Prize winner John Branch that not only told of Stabler’s deterioration but showed his brain, the topic is back in the highly-lit middle of the NFL’s biggest show.
By now, we are used to the news of NFL players dying with varying levels of brain damage. Frank Gifford died with it. Junior Seau was elected to the Hall after killing himself because of it. Every new study presents an increasingly dire picture, and there seems no end in sight. Because CTE can only be detected in brains after a person’s death, the science of detection is still in its early stages, but the overwhelming evidence available is that if you played football and lived long enough afterward, you’re likely to have it.
Committee members speaking on the condition of anonymity said that Stabler will be the Hall of Fame version of a game-time decision. Ten no votes will keep a player out of the Hall, and Stabler’s numbers combat his game presence when the talk turns to evidence. He is one of the you-had-to-be-there-to-see-him candidates, and while there are people who think he will gain some new support among voters because of his death, there is no way to assess whether the CTE news would have a deleterious effect on his candidacy. Seau was elected in his first year of eligibility, but Seau would have been elected in his first year of eligibility under any circumstances, while Stabler has been a tougher sell.
Then again, Owens and DeBartolo are difficult calls as well because they are classic “bubble” candidates, who are within sight of the 36 required votes but no guarantee that they’ll be there.
DeBartolo in particular has been the subject of intense lobbying, and one committee member said that while other candidates have been the beneficiaries of lobbying in the past, “it’s never been close to this level.” That is not necessarily an indication of his worthiness as a candidate, but it is a serious indication of his perceived borderline status, not only in the room but among his supporters.
As for Owens, the debate will center around his raw numbers against the fact that he was suspended and traded twice in the prime of his career and was considered by coaches to be a divisive figure inside his own teams. None of those players and coaches will be in the room either, so his electability remains a question, especially given that former Colts wide receiver Marvin Harrison is considered a more likely electee.
In any event, those three names are likely to garner the most passionate arguments on either side. The inadequacies of a small room of electors (too few people with too much influence) are negated by the one true positive – that televising this kind of semi-hysterical middle-aged sturm und drang for any candidate would be the kind of programming the NFL Network would blow up a bank to get.
You think Favre’s selection is going to create much drama? Greene’s? Dungy’s? Are you kidding? That’s just about football players and coaches meriting an honor after their careers have ended. If the league wants this to make good TV, it should find a way to install hidden cameras for the three local candidates. It will be pure train-wreck/embrace-blind-rage argument fun for a sport that frankly doesn’t nearly enough of it. After all, there are only so many “A Football Life: Milt Plum” re-airings a person can watch.