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Ryan Gabrielson: For Darren Sharper, a Place in Prison—And Maybe the Hall of Fame

The NFL’s Hall of Fame rules allow a serial rapist to be considered.

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Pro Football Hall of Fame, Canton, OH.
Image from Flickr user Zach Frailey.

By Ryan Gabrielson
By arrangement with ProPublica

Darren Sharper has secured his place in prison over the next nine years for raping women across the US. It now remains to be seen whether the former National Football League star defensive back can simultaneously achieve criminal infamy and the highest honor of his profession, a place in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Sharper, who has so far pleaded guilty or no contest to charges of rape, attempted rape, and drugging women in California, Arizona, and Nevada, is eligible for enshrinement in the hall next year. Based solely on his in-game performance across fourteen seasons for the Packers, Vikings, and Saints, he is a legitimate candidate. Sharper is tied for seventh on the league’s list for career interceptions, and he was twice selected for the Associated Press All-Pro First Team. He was also a key player on the team that earned the New Orleans Saints their only Super Bowl win in 2010.

The hall’s bylaws explicitly state that voters, called “selectors,” are only supposed to consider a candidate’s on-field performance and characteristics when deciding whom to enshrine.

Those deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame are selected by a committee of forty-six members of the media who typically choose between three and eight retired players for entry each year. The hall’s bylaws explicitly state that voters, called “selectors,” are only supposed to consider a candidate’s on-field performance and characteristics when deciding whom to enshrine.

Earlier this year, Peter King, a leading football writer for Sports Illustrated and a Hall of Fame voter, argued on Twitter that Sharper deserves consideration. “If I said, ‘I will not consider Sharper for induction because he has been accused of multiple rapes,’ I would resign from the committee,” King wrote.

In an interview Friday afternoon, King said his position doesn’t signal support for Sharper or his candidacy. “It seems preposterous to consider Sharper for the hall of fame,” he said.

The Hall of Fame’s board of trustees includes six National Football League team owners, and is seen largely as an extension of the league. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell is also on the hall’s board.

ProPublica sought to interview Goodell about whether the league could take action to exclude Sharper from consideration. The commissioner’s office referred questions to Brian McCarthy, a league spokesman, who did not return multiple calls and emails. The Hall of Fame directed interview requests to Joe Horrigan, its in-house historian on the selection process, who also did not respond to inquiries.

“Off the field is not supposed to count, but I would feel disgusting if I voted for him…”

Before Sharper admitted his guilt, TMZ reported that Horrigan’s position was that as long as a player has been retired for five years and has made at least one All-Pro team, he is eligible; while voters could take his criminal history into consideration, they are not supposed to.

Some voters, however, say they can’t simply disregard what they know.

“Off the field is not supposed to count, but I would feel disgusting if I voted for him,” said Jason Cole, an NFL writer for Bleacher Report and Hall of Fame selector. “There’s a certain point where you can’t separate the two. And he crossed that line.”

Others say they will suspend judgment—for now.

Sal Paolantonio, an ESPN national correspondent and a Hall of Fame selector, said: “I am very respectful of the selection process and I will not pass judgment on a player’s credentials for the Hall of Fame until I hear the presentation in the annual selection meeting, if Mr. Sharper should ever become a finalist. I think, however, that there are other safeties—John Lynch, Brian Dawkins—that deserve consideration before Mr. Sharper.”

The extent to which a player’s character should influence his selection to the Hall of Fame has roiled baseball for years. Cheaters and racists and convicted felons are in the hall. But Pete Rose was barred from consideration by then Commissioner Bart Giamatti because he had gambled on baseball. Rob Manfred, the newly named commissioner, has agreed to take up a review of Rose’s decades-long effort to have Major League Baseball’s ban rescinded.

Lawrence Taylor, considered by many the finest linebacker ever to play, was suspended several times by the NFL for failing drug tests. Taylor nonetheless won entry to the Hall of Fame in 1999, the first year he was eligible. In 2011, Taylor pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct involving a sixteen-year-old girl.

In Sharper’s case, voters will know his criminal history before considering him for entry into a sport’s Hall of Fame. Sharper is expected to plead guilty in Louisiana and in federal court to still more charges in the days or weeks ahead.

This week, ProPublica and the New Orleans Advocate published a two-month investigation outlining the police failure to stop Sharper’s spree of raping women, many of them rendered unconscious by drugs he gave them.

When Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his then fiancée unconscious in an elevator last year, Goodell initially suspended Rice only for two games. The commissioner received fierce criticism for the light penalty, and reversed course after a video of the assault became public.

The issue of violence against women, which has been a perennial problem for the NFL and its players, exploded over the last year. When Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice knocked his then fiancée unconscious in an elevator last year, Goodell initially suspended Rice only for two games. The commissioner received fierce criticism for the light penalty, and reversed course after a video of the assault became public. The NFL ultimately adopted new policies and hired sex crimes consultants to help it navigate the issue in the future.

Paolantonio said the moment may be ripe for the Hall of Fame process to be revisited as well.

“In light of the long overdue renewed emphasis on player conduct by both the NFL and the NFL Players Association, I think there should be an open and honest discussion and debate about whether the Hall of Fame’s by-laws should be reconsidered,” he said. “And I think the league and the players would welcome that debate and should be part of it.”

However, King said he opposes a rule change that would block felons from enshrinement because it could subject candidates to the sometimes arbitrary variances in criminal law, with offenses that are misdemeanors in one place counting as felonies in another. He added that the hall does not ask voters, “people who cover football for a living,” to weigh which crimes are heinous and which tolerable. Nor does he believe he and his colleagues are equipped to make that kind of judgement.

Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for ProPublica covering the US justice system.

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