Should NFL Hall of Fame judge character?

Commissioner Roger Goodell has done an excellent job protecting the valuable, corporate image of the NFL. Case in point is the six-game suspension of Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Yes, Big Ben doesn’t own a courtroom conviction, but the majority of fans in Pittsburgh wouldn’t mind if the team tossed him to the curb for his well-publicized actions in Georgia and Reno. If Tiger Woods was an NFL receiver, his boorish behavior might have put him in Goodell’s crosshairs, too.

Unlike his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, Goodell doesn’t always wait for the law of a particular state before making his rulings on violation of the league’s personal conduct policy. Just ask Pacman Jones. Plus, he was tougher on Michael Vick because the quarterback continually lied to him about his dog-killing involvement.

Consequently, it makes sense in Goodell’s judgment that I and 43 other selectors for the Pro Football Hall of Fame start considering a player’s morals and off-the-field conduct when judging prospective candidates for enshrinement. The Commissioner said last week that he believes “very firmly that it’s how you conduct yourself on and off the field as a member of the National Football League. That’s part of your contribution to the game.”

Well, if that’s the criteria, Lawrence Taylor, a linebacker who revolutionized the game, wouldn’t be in the Hall of Fame. And like the Associated Press did recently in the case of Texans linebacker Brian Cushing, the HOF probably would have asked for a re-vote on O.J. Simpson, one of the greatest running backs of my generation. Luckily, the HOF has a set of by-laws and one of them states rather clearly that selectors only consider what a player did on the field and nothing more. This also goes for contributors and coaches who are HOF candidates.

Believe me, there were quite a few selectors who didn’t want to vote for Taylor because they held the identical, idealistic viewpoint as Goodell. There was much argument in the room until the Hall’s Joe Horrigan and others stridently pointed out that L.T.’s drug use should not be considered against him. L.T. has since proven that he may not be the greatest man in the world, but he was a great football player.

And, honestly, that is more than enough to consider when passing judgment on a man’s football career. I know there are former players like Cris Carter who think the HOF voting is a sham, which goes to show you how difficult the process truly is.

If we added Goodell’s viewpoint on misbehavior, it would be impossible to draw the line on many players. Would a felony conviction ban someone from the Hall? Would known drug use or a series of misdemeanors put a career in jeopardy? And, possibly more importantly, would a player’s behavior and treatment of certain voters during their careers jeopardize them from receiving the necessary 80 percent quorum?

For example, no player has more Super Bowl rings than former 49ers and Cowboys linebacker Charles Haley and I continue to support his selection. But I also know that Haley’s unusual and pithy attitude toward the media and also former coach George Seifert in San Francisco has hurt his chances. With so many worthy candidates, Haley’s off-the-field actions have influenced some selectors. It’s not right, but when paring down one’s list of possible finalists it is difficult for some not to remember an ugly incident with a player or coach. It’s only human nature.

When I changed my A.P. vote recently on Cushing as Defensive Rookie of the Year, I was ridiculed and criticized by some of my peers and others for making such a switch. Maybe the best move would have been to abstain like some did, but Cushing had a known history of using performance enhancers at USC and once the ruling came down that he was being suspended for testing positive at the start of the 2009 season, it seemed like the right thing to do.

But Cushing’s suspension is the perfect example of how difficult it is to make judgments on a man’s personal character. Before the league and the union agreed on steroid testing in the late 1980s, do you think there might be players in the HOF who might have been users before there was regulation? Would we have to remove such a player’s bust from Canton if teammates came forward today and said this man abused steroids?

There is no question that Goodell is thinking like a high-moral fan when he said he wants us to strongly consider a man’s character before putting him in the Hall of Fame. I’m sure he is thinking of baseball, too, where home-run hitters like Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa may never gain entrance into Cooperstown because of HGH or steroid abuse … and Pete Rose, too, because he gambled on the game he loved.

To Joe Fan, this must be confusing and perplexing. Why is baseball more selective than football?

But I’m glad it is. It is difficult enough balancing one player’s career against another in deciding who is worthy or not. I don’t also want to be a judge and jury on a man’s character, too.