Terrell Owens is skipping his own Hall of Fame induction ceremony. "What an entitled diva" seems to be the early reaction so far. But let's think about this for a bit. For years now, some of the most high profile football people, including its pre-eminent historian, Bill Belichick, have complained about the selection process. T.O. was a characteristic case, a player almost everyone agrees is one of the best wide receivers to ever suit up, missed out in his first year of eligibility and didn't even make the top 10 in his second, only to finally squeak in on the third try.
To understand the problem with the process, we need to understand what it is. The selection committee is comprised of journalists and only journalists. No players, coaches or anyone who was actually involved in the game as more than a spectator has a vote. Even worse, they don't have a say. The case for the candidates is made by a member of the committee, usually a beat writer for the team where they had the most impact. And therein lies the first issue. Every single time I hear a player or coach talk in depth about a player, I am struck by how many fine details about playing are only known to insiders, and I wonder how much stronger the case for some of these players would be, if teammates (or opponents) were allowed to speak and describe what made them so good.
Furthermore, journalists are inherently biased towards "good interview" types. That's just human nature, no one can be completely objective. A bad attitude towards the press can be and has been a major obstacle to inclusion (see Stabler, Ken) when it should really have no impact whatsoever. And here is where T.O. comes in. Despite his egomania and attention-seeking, T.O. was not really someone who played nice with the press. He's always had an underdog, small-school type mentality and was extremely thin-skinned. Of course, no one will admit that's the reason he had to wait, the explanation by those voters who went on record was that he was "a bad teammate". Catching 9 balls for 122 yards in a Super Bowl while playing on a broken leg to help your team win should absolve someone from being labeled as such for all eternity, yet here we are. And here is also the second major problem with HoF voters. There is no accountability. None. They serve essentially for life, and do not have to justify their decisions. Neither does anyone monitor the fairness (or lack thereof) of inclusion. For example this year Ray Lewis, who pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice in a double murder case was considered a lock and Randy Moss, who fake-mooned Green Bay fans and came up with lines like "straight cash homey" and "I play when I want to play", was not (they both made it). No one really understands how those decisions are made, or even the exact criteria for making them. As a result, the ultimate career honor for a player or coach depends on the opinion of 30 or so journalists. That's an obvious and huge conflict of interest.
T.O. skipping the ceremony, though sure to be pilloried by the NFL and the press it controls, can actually be a wake-up call. Owens could have meekly played along now that he made it in, pretend to have forgotten being slighted the previous two years, and enjoyed a great evening in Canton. Yet he chose to say no, and thus highlight the problems with the selection process. Regardless of how you feel about him as a player or human being, in this particular instance you have to respect his willingness to fight for what he thinks is right.