My family home has an obscene number of refrigerator magnets. Our fridge is plastered with souvenirs from all around the world. Our freezer, however, is almost bare. It’s below the fridge, and reserved for things our household wishes to have nothing to do with. There are only three magnets there: John McCain for President, Florida, and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
My mom grew up in Oakland, and spent much of the ‘70s cheering for Kenny Stabler. The likable quarterback from Alabama made four Pro Bowls, had a career-high passer rating of 103.4 in 1976, and won a Super Bowl ring. He cameoed on SNL, had his own soft drink, and even inspired a pro wrestler’s nickname. But “The Snake,” despite his popularity, is not in the Hall of Fame. He was beloved during his career, but his numbers were less than stellar. With more INTs than touchdowns, Stabler managed mediocre production that overshadowed his popular appeal, and voters did not send him to Canton the three times he appeared on the ballot.
My mom’s not alone in thinking that Stabler should be in the Hall of Fame. There’s a small Facebook group, which is notable because a) somehow, I am one of the administrators, and b) it counts among its 28 members one of Stabler’s daughters, Kendra. Many Alabama fans and Oakland fans remember his career fondly, even though he put them through a few rough years. He’s the only quarterback on an all-Decade team who is eligible for the Hall, but does not have a bust there.
I’d mostly forgotten about Kenny Stabler, a player I was too young to watch, and for whom I did not share my mother’s passion (despite my Facebook admin status). But this recent round of voting inspired me to think more critically about the Hall of Fame.
It was announced on Saturday that Jerome “The Bus” Bettis would be enshrined in August, but many observers thought he would fall short of induction. Bettis’ numbers are better than Stabler’s (insofar as they are comparable), but it was a shock to me that his Hall of Fame bona fides were in doubt. Without pulling up numbers, it just felt like he should be there. Between the commercials, his bubbly personality, and his big plays in big moments, there was no doubt in my mind that he deserved to get in. I watched Steelers games just to watch The Bus do his thing. Which made me realize the real issue: the Hall of Fame is more of a Hall of Numbers.
There are all sorts of players with slightly above-average careers but with major impacts on the culture of the sport that don’t get their due. Statistics are great, but they rarely tell the whole story about what gives someone fame. Eli Manning is probably one of the most recognizable faces and names in sports, and he has two Super Bowl rings, yet people are debating whether or not he’ll be in the Hall. While that may feel right to most purists, casual sports fans know that he’s as deserving as some of the other lesser-known players who have made it in.
Now, I’m not saying we should throw numbers out. If we did that, we’d have to seriously consider Tim Tebow’s candidacy. We’d also leave out great non-skill players in small-market cities; when you think of the NFL’s most famous players, names like Chiefs guard Will Shields don’t immediately pop into your head.
I understand it would be hard (and probably illegal) to launch a Kickstarter in support of a “Pro Football Hall of Cultural Relevance” for the Kenny Stablers and Eli Mannings and Shaun Alexanders of the world. I also understand that the Pro Football Hall of Fame (and the Baseball Hall of Fame, for that matter) are set in their ways, and they’ll never think about their selection processes much differently than they have historically. But until Kenny Stabler and others like him are enshrined, the Pro Football Hall of Fame will be on metaphorical freezers in the minds of fans across America.