If, in my opinion, Darren Sharper had been a Hall of Fame player instead of a Hall of Very Good player, I suppose my time as a Pro Football Hall of Fame selector would have ended with a resignation before putting pen to paper and checking the box that would have helped move Sharper along as one of the 25 semifinalists for the Class of 2016.
Considering an admitted serial rapist now serving a nine-year prison sentence based only on his football résumé, as clearly explained in the Hall’s voting bylaws, was sickening enough. Voting for him had he been a no-brainer, well, let’s just say I’m glad it didn’t come to that. And I’m glad Sharper wasn’t named as a semifinalist this past week.
Perhaps there was a subconscious level of comfort for me in knowing ahead of time that Sharper’s on-field résumé wasn’t better than many safeties I’d rank as more qualified and also not in the Hall. But I still considered him, as directed, which doesn’t feel right and will be the reason that I, and probably others, will propose adjusting the bylaws when the 46-member selection committee assembles in San Francisco the day before Super Bowl 50.
I understand the spirit of the bylaw directive. A candidate shouldn’t be rejected because he exhibited immature behavior, committed minor transgressions or simply was difficult with the media. But this bylaw’s overly broad brush protects the admitted serial rapist the same as it does the locker room jerk.
It seems like an easy fix that a felon clause would take care of. Here’s hoping for that outcome because Sharper definitely was good enough to keep garnering consideration.
He played 14 seasons, including four years as a Viking (2005 to ’08), won a Super Bowl with New Orleans and was a five-time Pro Bowl player and two-time first-team All-Pro. His 63 career interceptions are tied for eighth-most in NFL history, while his 11 interception returns for touchdowns are tied for second.
Sharper’s road to becoming a nominee was simple. Each February, the Hall sends a preliminary list of candidates to its 46 selectors. The modern-era list of players includes those who have been retired at least five years but not more than 25 years. Among the preliminary candidates are players who made All-Pro, all-conference or the Pro Bowl at least once.
Sharper was in his first year of eligibility. He went from the preliminary list to the list of 108 nominees when a selector or a member of the public nominated him. It wasn’t me.
Earlier this month, selectors had to vote for 25 semifinalists out of the 108 nominees. Two safeties — Steve Atwater and John Lynch — made it. I had them ranked ahead of Sharper. I had three other safeties — LeRoy Butler, Darren Woodson and former Viking Joey Browner — ahead of Sharper.
Butler played five seasons next to Sharper in Green Bay. He also made twice as many All-Pro first teams (four) as the better all-around player.
Woodson, the former Cowboy, made three All-Pro first teams. He also has the emphatic endorsement of Vikings coach Mike Zimmer, who calls Woodson the best safety he has ever coached.
Browner was a forgotten standout who made six Pro Bowls and three All-Pro first teams. I have nominated him off the preliminary list more than once the past six years.
So I can honestly say that Sharper, despite his flashy stats, wasn’t a Hall of Famer in my opinion. But since he went to prison after pleading guilty to drugging and raping women, he is way too close for comfort and will resurface year after year under the current bylaws.
Of the 11 players tied for the top 10 in career interceptions, six are in the Hall, two (Ed Reed and Charles Woodson) are expected to join when eligible and three (Sharper, Ken Riley and Dave Brown) are left.
Riley and Brown haven’t played since 1983 and 1989, respectively. But Sharper’s case is just beginning, which is why the Hall should give voters the right to reject him permanently rather than having to repeatedly weigh only his on-field merits against a new field of candidates every year.