By Leonard Shapiro
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, February 15, 2007 11:18 AM
Art Monk deserved better.
And so did Paul Tagliabue.
It's been almost two weeks since the all-time leading receiver in Washington Redskins history and arguably the greatest sports commissioner of his generation were not voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the annual selection meeting in Miami Beach the day before Super Bowl XLI.
And I still don't get it. After 24 years on the selection committee, I honestly believed 2007 was going to be Monk's year, if only because he had waited so long and the number of can't-miss first time eligible players seemed rather thin.
In the interest of full disclosure, I've been responsible for presenting Monk to the board of selectors until this year, when my status -- after retiring from The Post in October after 37 years -- was changed on the board to an at-large representative. David Elfin of The Washington Times was added to the board as the Washington representative and he made an excellent case on Monk's behalf. And of course I followed up with more supporting evidence to advance his candidacy.
Monk had been among the final 15 every year since he became eligible seven years ago, and at least this year he made it through the first cut from 17 (counting two senior candidates) to the final ten (actually 11, because there was a tie).
Then, one more time, the unthinkable occurred. Monk couldn't make it to the last six on a day when Dallas Cowboys receiver Michael Irvin, in only his third year of eligibility, was among the exalted half-dozen. At that point in the process, the 40 selectors are asked to vote yes or no, and any candidate with 81 per cent of the yes votes gets his ticket punched to Canton.
I've always voted yes for any man who gets to the final six, unless I happen to know for a fact that he was an ax-murderer, or worse. And yes, once Irvin got that far, he did get my yes vote, even if I also believe it was a travesty of the highest order that he now will go into the Hall ahead of Monk, for a wide variety of reasons.
I've seen too many worthy players make it to the last six, and then get blackballed by what we like to call "silent assassins" in the final yes-no tally. It happened a few years back to Miami offensive lineman Bob Kuechenberg, and the poor guy has never gotten that far again, and may not considering the number of offensive lineman--five finalists this year, and more coming--who likely will shove him to the back of the line, including Russ Grimm.
It happened twice to Giants linebacker Harry Carson, who was so frustrated by the seemingly cruel and unusual process that he took the very unusual step of asking not to be considered for induction by the selectors.
Fortunately, we ignored him and eventually voted a very worthy Carson in to the Class of 2006.
But back to Irvin over Monk. Yes, the Dallas "Playmaker" had more touchdown catches than Monk and some very big postseason games, including three Super Bowl victories. Good for him. He's a Hall of Fame player, but I honestly thought my fellow selectors would take a "wait-your-turn" approach, and put Monk in this year and Irvin next.
Monk's numbers across the board were more than comparable, including a stunning statistic that two-thirds of Monk's 888 catches in Washington went for first downs, an incredibly high rate of success for a classic possession receiver. Oh, and by the way, when he retired, wasn't he also the all-time leading receiver in NFL history?
But far more important in my mind was the character issue. Unlike baseball, that's not supposed to be part of the equation in the pro football by-laws. But perhaps it should be. Irvin was a loud-mouth, look-at-me, point-that-camera-in-my-direction precursor to many of the preening prima donna wide receivers now prancing across our screens every Sunday.
More significantly, he also was guilty of some despicable behavior off the field, as well, getting involved in a series of highly publicized incidents involving cocaine, hookers, marital infidelity and general flaunting of the law.
Of course, none of those transgressions prevented him from landing a plum job as an analyst on ESPN, where he's also said some pretty dumb things. And in the weeks before the Hall of Fame meeting, both he and several of his colleagues unabashedly lobbied for his selection. Shame on him, and them, but that's show biz.
Monk was the anti-Irvin, on and off the field. He went about his business as a true professional, a player who never once went to Joe Gibbs and asked his coach to get him the ball more often. He was a consummate athlete who took great pride in his downfield blocking, a quiet, soft-spoken presence in the locker room who preferred not to speak much to the media if only because he felt uncomfortable in the spotlight. No arrests, no perp walks, no drug busts, not even a whiff of scandal or wrong-doing at any time during or after his brilliant career.
His only semi-flaw? Perhaps some writers on the 40-man committee may still remember Monk's reluctance to wave his own flag back when he was playing, more than occasionally rejecting interview requests from his own local beat writers as well as out-of-towners when he was very much in his prime and a key part of the Redskins story. You'd like to think that wouldn't matter much in the selection process, but quite frankly, human nature occasionally takes over, and perhaps that's cost him a few votes.
The good news is that at least he's getting closer. The glut of receivers who have been in Monk's path in recent years -- Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, James Lofton and now Irvin -- have all been elected to the Hall. Next year, first-time eligible Chris Carter of the Vikings will be the main competition, but it would be another travesty if Carter made it on the first ballot, or any ballot before Monk finally gets his due.
You'd like to think that Monk's three Super Bowl rings, compared to none for Carter, who never played in that game, will be a telling factor in finally getting Monk to Canton. I'm still convinced that it's going to happen for Monk, and sooner rather than later.
Sadly, Tagliabue may have to wait a while longer. This year, he didn't even advance from the final 17 to the last 10 in his first year on the final ballot, eliminated in the first round of voting.
As selectors, we often ask the question, "can you write the history of the National Football League without him?" Of course you can't write any history of the NFL without having Tagliabue in the first paragraph. Over his 18-year tenure since taking over from Pete Rozelle, an already prosperous league moved into another galaxy in terms of its growth and worldwide popularity.
At the moment, television contracts Tagliabue negotiated are estimated to be worth $25.2 billion. League attendance is nearly at 100 percent. Super Bowl XLI attracted the second largest audience in history, with ads selling for a record $2.6 million for a 30-second spot. And the vast majority of games remain televised, free of charge to the public.
The league never had a work stoppage on Tagliabue's watch. The NFL has the toughest drug testing program in all of sports, and continues to fund and monitor research to keep up with the latest science of cheating.
Tagliabue presided over the wildly successful expansion to 32 teams, oversaw the building or total renovation of more than 20 league stadiums and played a huge role in increasing the value of each franchise in the league, some now reportedly worth over $1 billion each.
With the exception of Los Angeles, every city that saw its NFL franchise leave town for a more lucrative market -- St. Louis, Baltimore, Cleveland, Oakland, Houston -- eventually got another team back, and four of them are now playing in magnificent new stadiums. To his everlasting credit, Tagliabue also strong-armed the impetuously irresponsible owner of the New Orleans franchise, Tom Benson, from moving the franchise after Hurricane Katrina.
And by the way, did you notice there were seven African American head coaches on the sidelines this season, two of them taking their teams to the Super Bowl two weeks ago? When Tagliabue took over, there were none, and his prodding of the owners to adapt the so-called Rooney Rule four years ago to make certain at least one minority candidate be interviewed for every head coaching vacancy has obviously paid huge dividends, on the field and in front offices around the league.
So how could my fellow selectors not vote him in on his first appearance on the final ballot?
Without specifically revealing who said what, let's just say I didn't hear a single reason that made any sense at all. There was some talk that he wasn't pro-active enough in getting new stadiums built for San Francisco, San Diego or Oakland, that he didn't push hard enough to make a deal to bring pro football back to Los Angeles. Some said the extension in the collective bargaining agreement Tagliabue brokered before he left office has a chance of blowing up in two years because too many owners are unhappy with the agreement.
Mostly though, there was an ugly whiff of vindictiveness in the room.
Unlike Rozelle, a gregarious PR man with a perpetual tan, Tagliabue was a buttoned-down by-the-book lawyer with a backroom pallor. He was stiff standing on a podium, occasionally condescending and evasive in news conference settings.
Over his reign, media access to players and coaches on many teams -- including closed practices, no interviews allowed with assistant coaches, not enough time in locker rooms after practice -- also was reduced considerably. Tagliabue, some have said, could have stopped it, but never really tried very hard to intervene.
Still, if that's the reason any selector -- 40 media men and women from around the country -- voted no, shame on them. This was not about us, and never should be. It was about the big picture and outside-the-box thinking from a visionary CEO who took his league to unparalleled heights, and kept it there year after year as by far the most popular team sport in the country.
Art Monk and Paul Tagliabue both deserved far better, and in 2008, the misguided naysayers in the room need to look in the mirror, come to their senses and do the right thing. They didn't embarrass Monk and Tagliabue on Feb. 3; they embarrassed themselves.
Leonard Shapiro can be reached at Badgerlen@hotmail.com or Badgerlen@aol.com.