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02.01.14

Will a Criminal Enter the Pro Football Hall of Fame?

It’s almost inconceivable that baseball would let a convicted felon into its pantheon. San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is a different matter.

When George Carlin put together his “Baseball-Football” comedy routine, there was no way he knew that he was describing the reaction of the two sports fan bases and sportswriters when it came to who should be in each sport’s Hall of Fame. Carlin hit the nail on the head when he uttered:

"Baseball is a nineteenth-century pastoral game. Football is a twentieth-century technological struggle." 

For the past two months there has been too much talk about who should be in Baseball's Hall of Fame and what to do with players who may have used performance enhancing drugs but were never caught breaking baseball's drug policy. Should Mark McGwire, Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens be voted into the Hall by the members of the Baseball Writers Association of America or were their deeds so heinous that they should be forever barred from entering Baseball's Valhalla in Cooperstown? 

O. J. Simpson's bust is still on display in Canton.

Alex Rodriguez is, at least in the eyes of baseball fans, an awful guy, a villain who might be on the level of North Korea's Kim Jong-un.  

But football is different. There is no teeth gnashing or feeling of exasperation over a real life criminal being nominated and having a chance to get into the football shrine in Canton, Ohio. 

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. is one of 15 people whose football credentials will be examined by voters on Saturday. “Eddie D” as he was known within National Football League circles had extraordinary success as the owner of the San Francisco 49ers franchise between 1977 and 1999. The team won five Super Bowls and Eddie spent whatever was necessary to make sure his 49ers had the best players. His 49ers won 13 divisional titles, made 16 trips to the playoffs and took part in 10 National Football Conference Championship Games during his 22 years in charge. 

He was the prototype for the successful NFL owner. 

Under normal circumstances Edward DeBartolo Jr. should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor. But the case for Eddie D. is complicated. You see Eddie had a little problem with political corruption in Louisiana. 

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Even as we celebrate the Super Bowl, football fans can’t ignore the violence and danger of the sport, especially when it extends beyond professional stadiums.

Eddie D. copped a plea in U.S. District Court Judge John Parker's Louisiana courtroom to a felony charge of failing to report that Louisiana's former governor Edwin Edwards allegedly extorted $400,000 from him to win a casino license in 1997.

With the plea, DeBartolo avoided prison. He also agreed to pay $1 million in penalties, serve two years of probation, and testify in future trials against Edwards and his son, Stephen, in a federal probe into the state's gambling industry. The court case ended DeBartolo's involvement with the 49ers. 

DeBartolo also played fast and fancy with the NFL salary cap rules but for some inexplicable reason NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue looked the other way even though there were whispers around the league in the 1990s that Eddie D's 49ers were willfully not following the league rules.

The salary cap circumventing story came after DeBartolo was out of the league. 

Football newspapers will be deciding whether Eddie D. should go into the Hall of Fame. Unlike their baseball counterparts, the football writers seemingly have no venom, no hatred of DeBartolo like the baseball writers and baseball fans have of McGwire, Bonds or Clemens. There is no problem that Eddie D may have broken some of his sport’s rules along the way from the football voters unlike the baseball voters who seem to judge every player guilty and demand players prove their innocence. 

George Carlin looked at baseball and football from afar. But Dave Sims is heavily involved in both sports as an announcer for Major League Baseball's Seattle Mariners and an announcer for the weekly NFL broadcast on the renamed Westwood One radio network. Sims as it turns out is a big fan of the Carlin routine.  

Dave Sims in a way brings George Carlin's baseball-football stand up to life when comparing why baseball fans have problems with alleged drug users and football fans aren't yelling about Eddie D. 

"In baseball, people followed it religiously, follow the tradition and hold it to high standards. They are super judge mental. It's an everyday sport," said Sims. "Football passes quickly and fans are not in on the machinations of Eddie DeBartolo. 

"Baseball fans have a reverence for baseball; football is not at the same level. Baseball fans get upset when the trust gets broken."  

The baseball fan looks at the baseball stadium as a cathedral while a football stadium is a place where you take your car into the parking lot, tailgate and then enter the stadium and watch a game.  

Baseball is a game built on statistics.

The National Football League's New York Giants franchise was founded in 1925 by a bootlegger named Tim Mara. The NFL's modern era which started in 1958 with the "Greatest Game Ever Played" - the National football League Championship Game between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx during a decade when the Yankees franchise won six World Series during baseball's so-called "Golden Era." 

Football has never had a "Golden Era" but the NFL has had a Golden Boy, Paul Hornung who has a bust in Canton despite sitting out the 1963 season for gambling on NFL games. Pete Rose was thrown out of baseball for gambling on baseball games by Baseball Commissioner Bart Giamatti in 1989. 

Hornung along with Alex Karras, who had a great second career as an actor and is probably best remembered as the character Mongo in the 1974 Mel Brooks's movie Blazing Saddles, returned in 1964. Neither Hornung nor Karras ever wore a scarlet letter for their transgressions unlike baseball players like A-Rod, Sammy Sosa, Rafael Palmeiro, McGwire, Clemens, and Bonds. 

Rose has never been welcomed back and as recently as a few days ago was again lambasted by former Commissioner Fay Vincent who was commenting on Alex Rodriguez's drug suspension. Fay Vincent utters Pete Rose's name just about as much as Rudy Giuliani says 9/11. 

O. J.  Simpson's bust is still on display in Canton, and Lawrence Taylor went into the football shrine despite drug-related suspensions.  

DeBartolo cheated and admitted guilt in a Louisiana courtroom. Can you imagine what the baseball outcry would have been had the writers had him on their ballots for Cooperstown consideration? In the court of public opinion, he would have been an outcast. 

As Dave Sims pointed out, DeBartolo's players loved him and he had an impressive record. So what if he cheated or copped a plea? It's football. He didn't do performance enhancing drugs while playing Major league Baseball, which is a thoroughly unforgiveable sin. That's baseball. 

Carlin ended his routine with one last look at the difference between baseball and football. 

"In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.

"In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! I hope I'll be safe at home!"

Maybe that's the difference. Football fans tolerate anything while baseball fans are looking to go home and be safe—safe from cheaters.