I remember an epiphany of sorts I had one morning in Miami in 1991.
I was in town as the national college football writer for the Chicago Tribune. A few years earlier, I was asked to participate in the Associated Press’ college football poll. Back then, there wasn’t a committee selecting four teams for a playoff. The national champion was determined by the AP media poll and the United Press International coaches poll. How quaint, right?
So I had a say on who would be No. 1 at the end of the year. I admit the whole thing was somewhat intoxicating, given my limited athletic skills.
My vote was particularly important in 1991. Miami and Washington were both undefeated, and the polls were close. I was regularly being interviewed about why I had the Hurricanes on top.
I didn’t think anything of it until that morning when I picked up the Miami Herald. There was a story on the polls and splashed across the front page was a big pullout quote with the tagline: Ed Sherman, Chicago Tribune.
That would be me.
Looking at that pullout quote in bold type, it dawned on me that something wasn’t right with my participation in the poll. In retrospect, it should have happened sooner, but at that moment, I realized I had crossed the line: “Journalists cover news. They don’t make news.”
I always reflect back to that memory because of what will occur next week. The 2017 class for the Baseball Hall of Fame will be announced Wednesday. Once again, baseball immortality will be determined by voters from the Baseball Writers Association of America (BWAA). Many of those writers then will write about the outcome even though they helped make news by actually casting a vote.
Critics, including yours truly, will make their annual climb on their soap box proclaiming media people should get out of the voting business for awards and Hall of Fames. It is simple: An editor wouldn’t allow a court reporter to be on a jury and then write about the case, right? Isn’t this a comparable scenario?
Last week, Washington Post columnist Barry Svrluga weighed in on the issue.
Svrluga writes: “The Washington Post has a long-running policy preventing its writers from voting on any and all awards. Other organizations — including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Baltimore Sun — have similar policies. So while these decisions were taken out of my hands for me, let’s follow a couple of examples of why we all need to pull ourselves out of these processes.”
George Solomon, the long-time sports editor of The Washington Post, decided it wasn’t a good practice for his writers to participate in votes.
“By voting for MVP's and on college polls, you can actually affect an athlete's (or coaches) income,” wrote Solomon, now the director of the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism at Maryland, in an email. “That puts the journalist in a very difficult position. At The Washington Post, we had a ‘no vote’ policy for decades, but allowed voting for the National Baseball Hall of Fame. However, once elected Hall of Famers began using their inclusions to generate justifiable personal income, it was best to pass on Baseball Hall of Fame voting (and other sports, too).”
Indeed, athletes have clauses in their contracts requiring teams to pay them bonuses for winning significant awards voted on by writers. As Solomon points out, there is a considerable financial stake for a player being able to put “HOF” after his signature.
That is a natural conflict right there.
However, the current situation with the Baseball Hall of Fame takes the debate to another level. Thanks to the cheaters, the writers now are the ultimate judges over the legacy of the steroid era. They will determine whether players like Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, and Sammy Sosa ever get an invitation to Cooperstown. Thus far, the answer appears to be an emphatic no, although the tide could be shifting.
I’m not comfortable with the writers having so much power here, which puts an even greater spotlight on their selections. The stakes in this exercise have gone much higher.
Where certain writers stand becomes a story in itself. Dan LeBatard mocked the entire process a few years ago when he let readers of Deadspin determine his vote.
It definitely is time for a change. Alex Putterman, writing for Awful Announcing, argues that limiting the Hall of Fame vote to just writers is outdated.
Putterman writes: “When the Hall of Fame voting system was devised in the late 1930s, the only way to watch a baseball game was to be there in person, and the only people who did that on a regular basis were the writers. As that has changed, why hasn’t the Hall’s induction process?”
Putterman cited a 1994 quote from stats guru Bill James saying the vote should include historians, broadcasters, and other experts. After all his years in the game, don’t you think Vin Scully should have some input on who goes into the Hall of Fame?
Baseball, though, is slow to tinker with tradition, and the BWAA isn’t likely to step aside anytime soon and let another group conduct the vote. Even though many of the writers realize that it crosses the main journalistic line (reporters shouldn’t make news), they won’t give up the sense of power that comes with determining who gets a bust in Cooperstown.
As I learned long ago when I held some sway over the biggest programs in college football, it is intoxicating.