Ken Stabler proves Pro Football Hall of Fame selection process is a sham

By Vincent Frank
Courtesy of Kyle Terada, USA Today Sports

Former Oakland Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler passed away last July at the age of 69. While the cause of his death was cancer, he was said to be suffering through chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).

Stabler played 15 years in the NFL, earning four Pro Bowl appearances and a Super Bowl title as well as one MVP award.

He was throw back in every sense of the word. A man that partied it up off the field and gave it all he had on the field, Stabler was a pure representation of the football of that era —  a pure representation of the Oakland Raiders of that era.

Recruited by legendary Alabama head coach Paul Bryant, Stabler’s ascension to the ranks of the top quarterbacks in the NFL was seen years before he hoisted the Lombardi in Super Bowl XI.

It also made for a story. A story of a man that didn’t give in to his own fame. Stabler was a true giant around the football world during his playing days. He was also someone that acted like normal folk around the communities he inhabited.

So when Stabler was passed up as a Hall of Fame finalist in 1990, 1991 and 2003, a lot of people took notice.

If he wasn’t a Hall of Famer in an era where quarterback stats weren’t as inflated as they are today, then who was? That’s the question many football purists asked.

These questions were finally answered on Saturday night, as Stabler was elected to the Hall of Fame. It came months after his death. It came too late for the man to realize the tremendous accomplishment of seeing his bust erected in Canton. It came too late.

That’s the issue.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame vote is too worried about the now. It doesn’t take into account the greats of the past, leaving open the potential that some of the best to ever suit up will no longer be with us when they are finally enshrined into the Hall of Fame.

Stabler’s story is the latest example of this. It tells us a story of men that go to fight, give it their all and do everything that’s asked of them. It also tells us a story of a voting process that doesn’t take this into account.

Stabler gave his heart and soul for the game he loved so much. He gave part of his well-being for the game. Would it have been too much to ask if he were able to actually bask in the honor of being selected as one of the game’s greats? 

Considering this was Stabler’s fourth time as a finalist and his first appearance among that elite group in 14 years, some will say that the primary reason he was elected is because he passed away mere months ago.

Stopping short of calling it a pity vote, this again speaks to recency bias regarding the Hall of Fame voting process. Stabler was as much a Hall of Famer the first year he was eligible as he was on Saturday night.

That’s the issue. Nothing changed regarding Stabler’s career between 1990 and this weekend. Not a darn thing. Unfortunately, it took his death for the Hall to finally recognize him.

So when we worry about young men like Terrell Owens missing out on a well deserved slot in the Hall of Fame, maybe we should look at the greats of the past who waited much longer to earn that honor. Men who might not see the day that they are enshrined into the Hall.