Canadian Football Hall voting a big secret

Legendary quarterback Damon Allen was curiously denied a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame...

Legendary quarterback Damon Allen was curiously denied a spot in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility earlier this winter. (Reuters file photo)

BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:40 AM ET

TORONTO - It’s not a simple task to become a permanent resident in the Canadian Football Hall of Fame.

And, discovering how that residency status can be won is almost as difficult.

Only 14 players have ever been deemed good enough to gain first-ballot entry. The last player to do so was Doug Flutie. Stars such as Pinball Clemons, the iconic coach Don Matthews and quarterback Damon Allen this year all had to wait in line like boxcars at a railyard filling station instead of getting the red-carpet treatment.

If history is an indication Milt Stegall and Ben Cahoon, in years to come, face the same cold wait in the wings.

Stomach ulcer

So, my well-intentioned but slightly deluded boss (he thinks he can change the world), asks — “Why is this?”

Guess who he picks to find out?

Now, I hate to complain. OK, that’s not true; complaining is my favourite thing next to Heavenly Hash ice cream or a cold Guinness on a warm day. I live to complain and this sounds like it has stomach ulcer written all over it.

But the boss convinces me this could be a fun project. Just find out, he says, how the Canadian Football Hall of Fame actually decides who gets a bust, and who gets busted! Find out why Allen, a quarterback who collects records and championships like Bill Gates collects dollar bills, gets left out.

He grins. I hate it when he does that. It always makes me think his idea is my idea, and of course I’ve never had a bad one. Until, maybe now.

I pick up the phone and that’s my first mistake. E-mails are sent. That’s the second mistake. The guys who make these decisions are like ghostriders. Unseen. Untouchable. A 13-member selection committee is responsible for picking players to the Canadian (don’t call it the CFL hall or they’ll make you feel dumber than dirt) Football Hall of Fame.

How they arrive at who gets selected is something they don’t discuss publicly. How many votes each player gets is never revealed and ballots are destroyed. Committee members are elected by other committee members and they can stay as long as the school tie holds out. Or they stop breathing.

“Be nice to us,” says George Black, who as chairman of the committee is approached while countless e-mails and phone calls to his cabal go unreturned, making my head hurt like some Slushy-induced brain freeze.

“It’s not some sort of secret society,” Black says. He sounds like he means this. Intentions, it seems are, well, “nice”.

But if it isn’t secret, it is certainly insular, small and closed. A fraternity that can pick Rocco Romano over Clemons without repercussion or at least public ratonalization. Matthews is the Bill Parcells (with the creative mind of Bill Belichick) of the north but last year the committee named Joe Pistilli. Pistilli did good work. But hands up everyone who ever heard of him?

This is first and foremost a Hall for the famed, isn’t it? When guys like Allen or Matthews come along they need to go in first; Greatness should bump “good work” every time. So, when Stegall comes up he needs to be slam dunk in there and everyone else gets to wait.

When this doesn’t happen shouldn’t the public have a right to at least hear why from the people who made that decision?

A week’s worth of e-mails and phone calls to committee members later the silence is deafening. “We talked at the end of the meeting about the probability that we would get some criticism for not putting Damon Allen in as a first-year-eligible hall of famer. There was an acknowlegement that there might be some controversy but at no point did anyone wish to reopen the vote,” Black says.

What the rest of the committee thinks about Allen, or the process, remains unknown. “It’s not a question of not being allowed to talk,” Blacks says. “What we’ve asked members of the committee is to use me as a spokesperson rather than get a he-said, she-said scenario.”

Some people might interpret that to mean no dissenting opinions allowed. This interpretation is made in the “nicest” way possible.

‘Cone of Silence’

But the Allen situation isn’t the only issue. The process that created it is equally interesting. The election of Hall of Famers would be more transparent, not to mention interesting, if the public knew how many votes players actually get — as in the annual vote for Cooperstown where everyone knows exactly how close Jack Morris gets, or how many votes Robbie Alomar didn’t get. But, no. We’re Canadian. Only 13 people get to know — and they’re not talking.

Popes get elected with less secrecy.

“I’d love to talk in detail about this, but all media requests should be directed to George Black,” e-mails Jim Mullin, committee member and sports director at CKNW in Vancouver. “There’s a Maxwell Smart ‘Cone of Silence’ on these meetings. Maybe it will loosen up a bit in the future.”

He is the only one to acknowledge that the public might have an interest in how their heroes are celebrated.

The Canadian Mint isn’t locked any tighter, than this. The process of how Hall of Famers are selected is always a point of debate in the other major sports. It is a hot topic in the NFL and NBA, but in the CFL and Canadian football it seems a forbidden topic.

The executive director of the Hall of Fame is asked for an interview about the keys to greatness. He sends material from the website and suggests we talk to Black.

Thanks. Been there. Done that. I’m exasperating Black and I can’t say I blame him and I’m not being totally “nice” but ...

Black says he represents the CFL so maybe I should talk to his boss, league commissioner Mark Cohon.

One ringy-dingy, two ringy ... an assistant intervenes. Says it’s not the CFL! Says it’s the CANADIAN HALL! Says the commissioner’s only involvement is to phone players who are elected. Allen wasn’t. In other words, go away!

The CFL suggests contacting Bob Howse, chairman of the board of the Hall of Fame. But, no. He’s on the selection committee. Remember? It’s only talking through Black.

Allen? He won’t answer his phone but tweets: “Not the CFL or HOF will stop me from my destiny!”

Black allows that maybe Allen might be “disappointed”. No kidding. Four Grey Cups with three different franchises, a most outstanding player award, three Grey Cup MVPs and football’s all-time passing leader. Disappointed might be the polite way of putting it.

Clemons was passed over three times. But, they had to get Romano in. The only thing more agile about Pinball than his feet is his tongue. The guy could out-syllable a TV evangelist; willing to talk about anything, to anyone, anytime. We call. Again. And again. Silence.

This is just too weird.

In other major sports nothing stands between the Montanas and Canton or Cooperstown and its Ripkens. They recognize special. There’s discussion. Passion. Fire. Fun. Debate. But when it comes to the CFL and Canadian football, there is no discussion. No sure thing. In fact there isn’t even an official list of maybes.

Asked for the players who had been eligible each of the past four years, and a list of players eligible next year, Black wavers. “I think that would be in the public domain.”

Get a buzz

I’m (insert heavy sigh, here!) trying to be “nice”. But, good grief Mickey Mouse lets get in the game here. Wouldn’t it make sense not only to have a list but to broadcast it from newspaper to Internet and make the eligible players something to celebrate? Use them to market a game that desperately needs marketing. Create speculation. Discussion. Get a buzz. Instead it’s treated like a trade secret.

“I’d prefer to get authorization from the board because we’ve never publicly put it out there before,” Black says.

So, the Hall of Fame Board meets Tuesday and we wait, trying to be nice, while some of this country’s brightest football minds decide if they can make a list. And share.

But don’t tell anyone. It’s probably ahhh, confidential. Shhhh!

bill.lankhof@sunmedia.ca


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