Built into the by-laws of most sports Halls of Fame is something called a “character clause.”
It’s a loosely-defined metric meant to gauge whether a potential Hall of Famers’ off-the-field conduct should prevent an athlete or coach from being honored.
The rules use words like integrity, sportsmanship and community to determine whether a sportsman or woman can be inducted into the prestigious club.
But once that tribute is bestowed and a Hall of Famer made, can it be rescinded and undone?
“It would be unprecedented,” said Brad Horn, a spokesman for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.
Do sanctions alter Penn State legacy?
“I suppose they could,” added Rick Leddy of the body that governs the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
That question is now being tossed around about the late Joe Paterno, a college football Hall of Famer since 2007.
Officials at the professional basketball, football, baseball and collegiate basketball and football Halls of Fame say it’s never happened before.
While governing-bodies may use the clause to keep out candidates, once inducted, a Hall of Famer’s status is historically safe.
But this week’s “unprecedented” NCAA sanctions against Penn State for its handling of a child sex abuse scandal threaten to shake that very bedrock and raise questions of whether Paterno will be removed from its ranks.
“The question is ‘What do you want your Hall (of Fame) to stand for?’ ” said Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples, a college football writer.
“Is there a character component to it?”
This question is slightly similar the the question that has long raged about the antics of some celebrities who get huge salaries, perks and become role models for young people. Is all that matters the performance? The show? The film? Or is there a point where people who perform well but are poor or terrible role models due to other aspects of their life should not receive almost blind adulation and the financial rewards stemming from being famous?
In the Paterno case it becomes even more debate bait: if Paterno not just looked the other way but helped cover up the child rape occuring at Penn State via someone associated with his program, does it detract from his history from a Hall of Fame standpoint as one of the giants of his sport? And should it?
Prediction: Paterno will remain in the Hall of Fame. But if there is another high profile shocking incident involving a Hall of Famer, expect some to call for a more narrow definition of who can be in a Hall of Fame in the 21st century. Values do change; and so can criteria.