Various Sports Halls of Fame Controversies
(Since this thread is meant to encompass sports other than skating, I thought it might be better suited here. If mods wish to move it, feel free.)
It seems that this year has had more notable controversies regarding elections to halls of fame in various sports than I can remember in recent years. Perhaps it's because the internet age now demands greater transparency than ever before, but increasing levels of attention and scrutiny are being given to the ins and outs of the eligibility of candidates as well as the nominating and voting processes for a whole range of sports' halls of fame. Mr. button has eloquently stated his case with regard to skating's issues of nationalism, a lack of transparency, inconsistent application of eligibility rules and voting standards, etc. Other sports have similar or different issues. Golf, or example, strangely allows eligibility to begin while players are still active. It is tied to certain thresholds that have been adjusted over the years and are applied to certain minimum totals for tour titles and/or majors won. This is likely a nod to the fact that golf is unique in that players can remain competitive on tour well into their late 40s to mid 50s if they remain fit. By contrast, many domestic sports (football, basketball, baseball in particular) have far more transparency with regard to their rules an even with their voting procedures. They are not devoid of controversy, but the high profile nature of those sports demands greater scrutiny and ultimately accountability.
A clear example of the difference between the big time sports and something like skating is the debacle of former Washington Redskins wide receiver Art Monk failing to get into the HOF despite repeatedly being nominated and universally praised for about a decade after he retired. Monk had a stellar career built on steadiness, short yardage receptions, surprisingly strong blocking skills and quiet leadership. He did not steal the show with spectacular receptions like his teammate Gary Clarke, who often overshadowed him. He also had a quiet and exceedingly humble personality. Still, if there was anyone a parent would want to tell their child to emulate, it was Monk. He was and is still an upstanding community leader who never lived for the spotlight, but he overwhelmingly deserved to be in the HOF. Inexplicably that honor was almost single-handedly denied for years by a behind the scenes lobbying effort by Sports Illustrated writer Peter King. (Sports writers are the largest voting block for the football HOF) King was unimpressed by Monk's supposed lack of receiving records and his perceived number 2 status among receivers on his own team. He overlooked the fact that Monk played on a team for over ten years that was packed with HOF caliber players who combined to win three Super Bowls and reached a fourth, thus making it harder to stand out. He also had managed to set numerous records during his time (especially the then all-time reception record which I got to see live ) which were later eclipsed several times during the record crazy 90s. King saw this as diminishing Monk's legacy and as having a negative impact on his candidacy. All of this was heavily debated mostly in the local DC press but went unnoticed nationally for years. Finally, when it did become a national story, former coach and media shy Joe Gibbs spoke privately with King and made Mon's case. He encouraged a second look by King and pointed out Art's overall invaluable contribution to those championship teams. King reexamined his position and surprisingly changed his mind. He became an advocate for Monk and led the campaign among the electors to finally get him in. If only the balloting process in smalller sports were as observable as that.
Instead the opposite is often true. Most recently, a major controversy has been brewing in the tennis world as it was recently reported that Yevgeny Kafelnikov was not elected to the International Tennis HOF this year. This is something of a shock to me, given his very complete competitive record. He won a total of six majors (two in singles -French Open 1996 and Australian Open 1999; and four in doubles), an Olympic gold in singles in 2000, a Davis Cup title for Russia in 2002, reached number 1 in the world in singles, and won a total of 53 professional titles (26 in singles and 27 in doubles). Not obvious in that list of accomplishments is the fact that there has only been one other male professional player since Kafelnikov to win both a Grand Slam singles and doubles title during his career (Lleyton Hewitt more than a decade ago). Most tennis experts and fans have grudgingly accepted the passage of the days of a top singles performer having the balance and stamina to compete at the highest level in majors in two or more disciplines. That should make Kafelnikov stand out that much more. Instead, he got snubbed. There is speculation that his lack of active lobbying for the honor, his prickly personality, his detachment from the game post-retirement, etc. may have had a impact on the voting. But should that be the case? Aren't his accomplishment's what should matter, not the personal impressions of the voters? That brings up another question faced by many halls of fame:
Exactly who are the voters anyway?
In the case of the tennis HOF many of the voters are international tennis writers (a notoriously cynical, rude and fickle bunch who typically never actually excelled at playing tennis themselves), retired players and tournament promoters/officials. There is no public input. Each of those groups has their own ax to grind if you dig below the surface. The sports writers always give the nod to those whom they developed good rapports with during their playing days and even after. The likable, but less accomplished candidates tend to get a boost ahead of the less friendly but better crop of players. Former players may have something of an ax to grind, but in truth, they are probably the fairest arbiters as the majority who vote have been retired for significant lengths of time. The tournament officials and promoters are likely the most suspect bloc. They rely on player participation in their events to be successful. When players pull out or under-perform, tensions arise that can often remain for years afterward.
This murky cast of characters has yielded some truly questionable choices in recent years. All of a sudden, one slam wonders have been getting into the HOF like they have a key to the back door. Manuel Orantes, Jana Novotna, Gabriela Sabatini, Andres Gimeno, Yannick Noah, Nancy Richey, Dodo Cheney and Francoise Durr are all well known names to tennis junkies like me. They also each only won one major in singles. Still each managed to acheive other noteworthy successes of varying degrees (reaching other major finals, winning multiple majors in doubles-particularly Novotna, winning Davis or Fed Cup, winning Olympic medals-again Novotna is the standout). But in each of their cases, there was at least a healthy debate about whether each had done enough to get in. There were questions about lowering standards for the HOF. Assertions were made that the HOF was not just for winners of majors, but for those who excelled past the minimal threshold of winning a Slam or two.
Still the argument in favor of broader criteria has won out, especially given that doubles in the majors and Davis Cup are almost abandoned by the top stars. Pure doubles stars or players who achieved their greatest success in that discipline are even getting in these days with greater frequency and lesser tennis resumes in singles. Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodford (the Woodies) along with Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva are two of the most legendary and dominant doubles teams in the modern era. There were also composed of former top 20 singles players who reached at least on grand slam semi each and then shifted to near exclusive doubles play mid-career once their singles results began to tail off. They were inducted together in the same year and with little argument. Pam Shriver was a fine singles player (#3 in the world at times, 21 singles titles but no majors and only one final and handfull of semis) and with Navratilova was half of the the most dominant doubles team ever in the game (20 majors together, an undefeated season, scores of titles over nearly ten years together) as well as winning one other major in doubles with Zvereva and an Olympic gold with Zina Garrison. Still there were questions about whether she had done enough to get in. But her accomplishments were similar enough to Novotna to qualify her.
Michael Chang is an altogether different story. He was and is beloved by much of the voting masses and got in easily on the first try as the sole former player inductee during his first year of eligibility (2008) despite having a record that was very thin on major titles and filled with a few earnest runner-uo and semifinal finishes and lots of early round losses. He was tennis' little engine that could for 17 years, but he was past his prime by 1997. He mostly stuck around out of stubbornness for the last 6-7 years of his career. No number 1 ranking; few, if any, doubles titles during a time when many of his contemporaries were still winning them, no Olympic medal, etc. Yet no one really questioned him getting in so easily. My own perspective is that is because the hall committee and it's membership is dominated by westerners and specifically English speakers who are personally familiar with many whom they induct. That is a throwback to a time when the game was dominated by a handful of countries (US and Australia chiefly with occasional challenges by France, the UK, Sweden, Germany, Argentina, the Czechs and Slovaks and Italy). Now the game is fully global and we have reached the completion of the first generation of stars who came from outside that familiar constellation of nations. No one seriously imagined the Soviets or later Russians producing a male tennis champion of note. Their focus had always been elsewhere. Now the first player from that nation or former bloc to break that mold has been snubbed rather shamefully while an affable, endearing, happy-go-lucky and arguably slightly less accomplished Brazilian (Gustavo Kuerten) has gotten in alongside a Spaniard (Manuel Orantes) famous only of a two day miracle performance at the US Open nearly 40 years ago.
Something is wrong with this picture in my mind. Is a one and done career regardless of the sport enough, or should longevity, variety, range, depth, etc. also be counted and used to winnow the field to the very best of the best? Have we dropped our standards across sports or is this more egalitarian approach ultimately more fair as it takes into account the inevitability that standards with be modified over time?
Please feel free to comment if you are interested.
I'm always impressed at your knowledge of tennis, jcoates. (And in many other areas as well, of course.) I tend not to know much about Halls of Fame, except for baseball, and there I'm not an expert by any means. I imagine that there are some factors that would make it unjustifiably hard for a player to stand out in a particular sport. You mentioned that Art Monk had a tough time because so many of his teammates were so good that he was overshadowed. On the other hand, it must be tough for a good player who's on a team that doesn't have a great record. For years I sort of wondered about Tony Gwynn, the San Diego Padre who stayed with that team through his entire career but who never was able to win a World Series. I looked up Gwynn just now, though, and I found to my satisfaction that he was so well thought of that he missed a unanimous election to the Hall by a mere 15 votes. I wonder whether there's another good player from an okay team who didn't do as well.
By the way, as an indicator of Gwynn's excellence compared to that of his team in general, at the time of his election to the Baseball Hall of Fame, he was the only HOF member who had not been on a team with any other HOF members. Now, apparently, some more Padres have made it in. I also like that Gwynn was inducted on the same day as another guy who went in for longtime devotion and perseverance, Cal Ripken.
My only other sport that I know a smidgeon of anything about is skating. We all know the picture there, so I have nothing to say.
Does anyone have any information on track and field? That must be an interesting sport for hall of fame selections, because it's so old and so international. I mean, golly, Ethopia and Algeria have provided possible winners.