Why Paul Tagliabue may not be among the Hall's Class of 2020 candidates

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The Pro Football Hall of Fame has room for three contributors in 2020, so Paul Tagliabue's a cinch, right? Not so fast.

When the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame’s board of trustees last week approved an expanded Centennial Class for 2020, president and CEO David Baker said that “people have been enormously receptive” to the idea.

Maybe. But voters? Not so much.

It’s not the idea that’s a potential land mine for them. It’s the execution, and most of the Hall’s 48 selectors know what I’m talking about. Because contrary to what Baker said, they’re not “enormously receptive.”

They’re enormously cautious.

The reason: Paul Tagliabue. They wonder what happens if he’s one of the three contributors included in next year’s class, and let me explain.

The former NFL commissioner has been a Hall-of-Fame finalist four times – three with the modern-era class and once as a contributor – and all four times he’s been voted down. In his first year as a finalist (2007), he made the cut to the final five and was a virtual certainty. But in an extraordinary but not unprecedented move, he failed to gain 80 percent of the vote.

The next two years as a finalist his candidacy stalled, with Tagliabue failing to make the initial cut from 15 to 10 before disappearing altogether after 2009.

Eight years later, however, he reappeared – this time as one of two contributor candidates for the Class of 2017 (Dallas owner Jerry Jones was the other). Yet he failed again, becoming the first—and only – contributor nominee not to be inducted since the category was created in 2014.

That’s four rejections in 14 years, and it’s not hard to draw conclusions: Tagliabue is a polarizing candidate who divides selectors, provokes passionate and personal debates and energizes the opposition so completely that it refuses to budge on his election.

Most important, he’s a candidate who can’t win the room.

It doesn’t matter that consultants who advise the contributors committee annually recommend him as the most Hall-of-Fame worthy. Nor does it matter that he has the support of the majority of the Hall’s 48 selectors. What does matter is that there are at least 10 votes out there that he can’t win – not then and maybe not now.

Critics believe he minimized the severity of concussions and CTE during his tenure as NFL commissioner, with Tagliabue once calling concussions “one of those pack-journalism issues.” He later apologized in a January, 2017, interview on the Talk of Fame Network, terming his comments “intemperate” and “not sensible,” but by then it was too late. His detractors wouldn’t move.

And that’s a problem … now more than ever.

Here’s why: In announcing plans for the expanded Centennial Class, the Hall of Fame said that its 15 nominees of seniors, contributors and coaches for 2020 would be chosen by a special “blue-ribbon committee” composed of Pro Football Hall-of-Fame voters, Hall of Famers themselves, media members, football historians and industry experts -- and that its recommendation would then be presented to the Hall’s 48 selectors for a vote.

OK, fine. But that's where it gets tricky. Because the list then is approved or disapproved en masse in a one-time, up-or-down vote.

“So what happens,” an unnamed voter asked me Sunday, “if they try to slide Tagliabue into the 2020 class?”

A potential PR nightmare, that’s what.

Including him in a class of candidates decided as one is a risk I’m not sure the Hall should be willing to take … and don’t sneer. I didn’t believe that one nominee could bring down the entire field, either. Then I heard from the anti-Tagliabue faction, and, yes, I believe one could.

If his name is Paul Tagliabue.

Look, I don’t want to get into the pros and cons of his candidacy because I’ve heard it all and witnessed the debates. But what I will say is that voters who oppose him are so defiant and so intractable – and have been for the past 14 years – that if it means sabotaging the entire Class of 2020 to keep him out, I believe it could happen.

I said “could;” not “will.” But anyone believes his inclusion can’t have an impact on the entire class is either naïve, delusional or both.

I know Tagliabue supporters are annoyed with Hall-of-Fame voters for not inducting him, and I understand their anger. Think how furious Terrell Owens supporters were when he wasn’t elected on his first try. Then multiply it by 14. But I also understand that the anti-Tagliabue faction is deeply entrenched and stubborn.

Paul Tagliabue may be the most qualified contributor candidate out there. In fact, a consultant to the contributor committee once said he should have been the first contributor nominated … and the first elected. But in this particular case the candidacy is about more than Hall-of-Fame worthiness.

It’s about electability. And that’s because the Hall’s board of trustees made it that way by subjecting the entire Class of 2020 seniors, contributors and coaches to one vote.

It’s not difficult to understand the problem here. If one candidate can kill the entire slate, then electability becomes more than a consideration; it becomes a necessity. The Hall cannot afford to risk having all 15 candidates rejected because of one individual, and let’s be honest: That could happen if Tagliabue is one of the 15.

I’m not saying he can’t or shouldn’t be nominated. But the Hall should proceed with caution here. There is no Plan B if the slate is voted down.

Look, there weren’t enough votes in the room two years ago to induct Paul Tagliabue. So why should that change in 2020?

Granted, it’s possible he could make it -- especially if voters know the consequences of sacrificing an entire slate for one individual. But Tagliabue is the only candidate in the last 14 years to make the cut to five and fail to reach Canton. He’s also the only one of eight contributor candidates to fail to make it, too. So the opposition is strong, and it hasn’t gone away.

And that should make the Hall wary.