Here's the most important thing to realize about the Pro Football Hall of Fame: It does not exist.
The pro Basketball Hall of Fame doesn't exist, either. The Baseball Hall of Fame is equally unreal, in the same way that all Halls of Fame1 are unreal. There are certainly buildings that house these fabricated facilities in Ohio and Massachusetts and New York, and you can drive to them and buy a ticket and walk inside, and the various rooms are filled with statues and arcane uniforms and officially licensed shot glasses available for purchase in the various gift shops. You can see these things and you can tap your fingers on the glass display cases and you can buy a cup of coffee that will taste and smell and burn like coffee, but this experience is no different than living in The Matrix: It's a construction of the mind. It's multiple layers of symbols and simulation that are meaningless unless we decide a meaning must exist. But because this is what we do (and because we all do it, without even wondering why), the Pro Football Hall of Fame represents the pinnacle achievement within a life in football. Players and coaches love to insist that the most important goal in their professional lives is the winning of championships, but they are all lying when they say that. Either they are lying consciously or they're so socialized by the omnipresence of that childish falsehood that they've actually convinced themselves Jeff Hostetler's career was more fulfilling than Dan Marino's, simply because Scott Norwood missed a field goal in 1991. The Hall of Fame does not exist, so it's unaffected by reality; it matters more than reality, because ideas are more important than actions.
This Saturday, seven people will be enshrined into football's nonexistent Hall of Fame, even though the preseason game that normally accompanies this procedure was canceled due to the imaginary lockout: Marshall Faulk (who gained more than 19,000 total yards from scrimmage), Richard Dent (the MVP of Super Bowl XX), Deion Sanders (the best cornerback of his era), Shannon Sharpe (more than 10,000 receiving yards as a tight end), Chris Hanburger (the focus of the Redskins defense throughout the '70s), Les Richter (a deceased legend from the 1950s), and Ed Sabol (the architect of NFL Films). They all deserve this reward, inasmuch as anyone can "deserve this reward." The only strange thing about Sabol's induction is that everyone who knows who Ed Sabol is assumed he'd been inducted 20 years ago. Sanders is the only class member who was an irrefutable lock, so his election is mechanical and predictable (he'll probably cry, but not a fraction as much as he'd scream if he'd somehow been ignored). Faulk was the best offensive player in the NFL2 for roughly 4½ years, so his selection is likewise rote. Richter is dead, which means this is a nice day for his family; Hanburger's recognition will be appreciated by D.C. old-timers and gratify league historians. But it's the selections of Dent and Sharpe that are most interesting. They're interesting because both of those players — while indisputably "great" — are bubble selections not altogether different than a bunch of newly eligible guys who didn't make the cut (Cris Carter, Willie Roaf, Curtis Martin) and arguably less "great" than a massive collection of individuals who failed to make it in the past (Charles Haley, Drew Pearson, Roger Craig, Andre Reed, etc.). All of the players I've mentioned are aware of this in a way the rest of us cannot comprehend. And that's what's so weird about the whole Hall of Fame process: The public sees it as an argument, but — within the mind of the elite athlete — it must be one of the most confusing, painfully personal scenarios they'll ever experience. Being inducted into a Hall of Fame is both the greatest thing that can happen to an athlete and the effective end to his or her cultural import; being rejected by a Hall of Fame is a major blow to one's self-image and the single-best thing that can happen to a retired player's legacy. The process is a lose-lose: It's either good (and then bad) or bad (and then good).
It's easy to remember Michael Jordan's speech when he was inducted into the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame, mostly because it was just about the only compelling Hall of Fame speech anyone's ever delivered — he seemed drunk,3 vindictive, and relentlessly ungracious. MJ apologists tend to argue that this speech validates the intensity of his competitive fire and exemplifies what made him different than everyone else who ever played, and they're not wrong when they say this. But that speech made two other things just as lucid, and these things are less inspiring. The first is that this induction was a formality that Jordan couldn't enjoy the way a normal man might, since he'd lived almost half his life certain this moment was inevitable (it was like finally receiving a plaque for something he'd done in 1994). The second is that this speech was the last time anyone would think about Jordan as a living basketball player, and he knew it. Obviously, we'll never stop talking about Jordan's career, but — from now on — it will almost always be in reference to someone else.4 He's now a canonized historical figure. He's like George Mikan. He's reached the highest level of achievement, so there's nothing left to consider or rethink. We've completed our social experience with Michael Jordan as a basketball player; he's still alive, but he is dead.
Now, compare that with what's happened to Roger Maris. Maris hit 61 home runs in 1961 and was criticized for doing so. It's starting to look like 61 home runs might be the most anyone can hit in one season without steroids, so this remains one of baseball's tentpole accomplishments, achieved during an era when baseball mattered way more. He retired with 275 career homers (but a lifetime BA of just .260), one Gold Glove, and two MVPs (although he only made the All-Star game four times). It's as good a career as anyone can have without making the Baseball Hall of Fame, and it seems curious (and a little sad) that he's been denied entry.5 Yet this denial is — without question — the greatest thing that's ever happened to his career.6 People still talk about Maris every year. It's like clockwork. You cannot have a discussion about borderline Hall of Famers (or Hall of Fame voting) without referencing Maris. And whenever this conversation occurs, we don't solely compare him to other people — we talk about his actual stats and his perceived ability and how his unpopularity with the New York media hurt him more than his batting average. People still talk about him like he's alive, even though he died in 1985 from lymphoma. Because he's not in the Hall of Fame, the (literally) dead Maris continues to live. His career feels unfinished and incomplete — and that plays to his benefit.
I'm sure the Maris family would still prefer that their namesake be inducted into the Hall of Fame, and having his life synonymous with the plight of the overlooked athletes doesn't make Roger's corpse feel any more satisfied. If you have to choose between being inducted into the Hall of Fame or being unjustly ignored, it doesn't take a genius to deduce which option is more desirable in the living present. But let's imagine that Maris had made the cut: Would he be remembered at all? Would he be best known as a guy who was wrongly inducted for one memorable season? Would he be mentioned only in discussions about which Hall of Famers don't deserve to be in Cooperstown?
For Maris, it's almost a no-win situation: He's either the greatest non-elite player of his era, or he's the worst elite player of all time. Technically, those are both massive compliments. But they're the kind of compliments that make a dead man feel worse.
Amy Winehouse died after making just two albums, which is bad news for Amy Winehouse and all the people who love her music (and for music is general). But she died at the age of 27, which is a meaningful detail to anyone who decided to set up a posthumous Google alert for the word "Winehouse." People will never stop talking about the handful of musicians who died at age 27, and she will forever be part of that class. Otis Redding died at 26 and Bradley Nowell died at 28, so they won't be mentioned the next time some bozo writes a story about "The Curse of 27." Yet Winehouse will appear in those paragraphs. For this reason, we will be continually reminded of Amy Winehouse's death far more often than the death of Jeff Buckley or Bob Marley or Shannon Hoon, and that will tangentially promote the post-life profile of Back to Black. Had she hung on another three months,7 this would not be the case. And that's fucked up, but it's what happens whenever media becomes the overwhelming force in a society. Cultural memory is now dictated by identifiable news pegs. Charles Barkley has bemoaned how — whenever ESPN talks about which current superstars have not won an NBA title — his name will always be mentioned among all the ex-stars who failed at that goal. And that conversation happens constantly. It's become much easier to name great players who have never won an NBA title (Barkley, Karl Malone, Pat Ewing, Dominique Wilkins, George Gervin, LeBron James) than it is to name great NBA players who have won exactly one (Jerry West, Julius Erving, Nate Archibald), simply because the former list is mentioned so much more often. The proliferation of media means we don't get to decide what we remember.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame is designed to reward and recognize the people who get in. But because the Hall of Fame is not "real" — and because the media has more social influence than actual history — it ends up rewarding and recognizing the people who don't make it just as much. The relationship between those two groups is virtually equal. Shannon Sharpe deserves to be inducted yet when I first heard that he'd made the cut and Cris Carter had been denied, my immediate reaction was, "That seems wrong. The better player got shafted." On the day of his retirement, Cris Carter was (statistically) the second-best wide receiver ever. Yet what would I have thought if Carter had been inducted and Sharpe had been shut out? I think I would have had the exact same thought. I suspect I would have thought, "That seems wrong. The better player got shafted." Next year at this time, we will be talking about Carter (and his statistics) again; if he isn't inducted in 2012, we'll have the identical conversation in 2013. His omission perpetuates his import. At some point this weekend it will be mentioned how Ray Guy's not being in the Hall of Fame is a travesty. He's the greatest pure8 punter of all time, and he absolutely won the Oakland Raiders a few games they'd have lost with a lesser punter. His exclusion seems egregious and wrongheaded, and it drives Guy crazy. But — if Ray Guy was in the Hall of Fame — how could they exclude Kenny Stabler (who sometimes won the Raiders more games in a single season than Guy won for them in his whole career)? His enshrinement would immediately become a form of mild hypocrisy. In other words, it seems wrong that Guy isn't in the Hall of Fame, and it would seem equally wrong if he was. So which of those two options benefits the player?
For borderline legends like Sharpe and Dent, Saturday will be one the greatest days of their lives. That, obviously, means something. I would never want to minimize their achievements or imply that the induction ceremony won't be emotional. I don't know much about either guy, but I'm happy for both of them. Yet I suspect Saturday's true winner will be the artificially elevated memory of Cris Carter. He already seems better than he did before he became eligible for an honor he did not receive. Carter will likely feel disrespected as he watches the ceremony, and — no matter how cool he behaves — his exclusion will likely strike him as unjust. But that's what happens in a mediated world of the unreal: The winners feel as empty as the losers.
Chuck Klosterman is the author of six books. His novel The Visible Man will be released in October.
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