Up until last week, you may have remembered Darren Sharper by his 14-year NFL career that ended in 2010 and included five Pro Bowl appearances, two All-Pros in stints with the Packers, Vikings, and Saints, and a reputation as one of the hardest-hitting safeties in the league. But recently, Sharper’s legacy has become overshadowed by the fallout from a rape spree in which he was accused of assaulting as many as 16 women over three years in four different states.
His crimes had a distinct design: he charmed the women, offered them drinks laced with prescription drugs, and raped them while they were incapacitated. The drugs strategically made their stories difficult to follow (and perhaps less believable) for officers unaware of Shaper’s pattern, thus slowing down investigations.
Authorities finally caught up with Sharper when he was arrested in Los Angeles in January 2014, and the disgraced former free safety has remained behind bars since. As a consequence of a four-state plea deal, Sharper will be allowed to serve punishments from each state at the same time. He faces a maximum of 20 years in prison, but if his pending appeal against the longest sentence is successful, he could only serve 10 years. Given the deliberate and disturbing nature of his crimes, even the judge who handed down the 20-year sentence called it "woefully inadequate."
The Hall of Fame, as it stands now, is one further example of how professional football fails to acknowledge or care about the victims of the behaviors they claim to abhor.
But this isn’t the only reason Sharper has been in the news lately. In September, he was nominated for the second time since 2014 to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Sharper’s nomination was met with immediate backlash on social media, which incited a broader debate about who should be eligible for the Hall of Fame. Although Sharper did not make it past the first round of voting, his nomination alone signals a lack of responsibility on behalf of the NFL.
Sports Illustrated’s Peter King recently defended Sharper’s candidacy on the Garbage Time podcast with Fox Sports’s Katie Nolan. King said, “In my opinion, there’s 48 people who vote for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, if we get into the business of adjudicating players...based on what they’ve done off the field, where does it stop?” Setting aside the fact that Sharper’s adjudication is not being assumed by the NFL or the Hall of Fame—his crimes have been properly adjudicated in a court of law—the answer to his question is pretty simple: it shouldn’t stop.
Ideally, relevant behavior or character criteria should always be considered because, practically speaking, character issues should matter throughout player’s careers and in the years after they hang it up. While the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a separate organization from the NFL, the two are deeply connected and will always be. In 2010, King responded to calls for O.J. Simpson’s removal from the Hall of Fame by stating, "I think it's a very slippery slope to judge character along with football. I think it's certainly a bad idea to remove someone from the Hall for something he does after his career...As for judging players who screw up off the field during their careers, what's a serious offense and what's not? I see no reason to change the rules."
Meanwhile, Lawrence Taylor, the great New York Giants linebacker, remains in the Hall of Fame despite admitting to using narcotics through his career and pleading guilty to patronizing a 16-year-old prostitute in 2011.
even the judge who handed down [sharper's] 20-year sentence called it "woefully inadequate."
King’s hang up on the risk of a slippery slope has not proven to be a problem in similarly situated leagues. While there is no “character clause” in the rules for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the respective Hall of Fames for hockey, baseball, and basketball all allow for character issues to play a part in deciding whether players are considered for the honor. Although there may be some merit in remaining adamant about objectivity and focusing on stats, for a league that is climbing an uphill reputational battle concerning their well-documented domestic violence problem, there is no excuse for being aloof about whether conduct which sinks to the depths of Sharper’s can be ignored. Notably, Sharper didn’t get very far along in the process, probably because the selection committee is composed of people who likely take off-field conduct into consideration.
In 2010, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told ProFootballTalk.com, "I do believe that it's more than just how you conduct yourself on the field. I believe very firmly that it's how you conduct yourself on and off the field as a member of the National Football League. That's part of your contribution to the game." But here we are, nearly seven years later with no public changes to the procedure, and Sharper has twice been nominated to the Hall of Fame. This stunning focus on “on-field conduct” is not surprising—a true lack of forethought shines through so many recent decisions made by the NFL. If the league wants to make any progress on these issues—and in the court of public opinion—they must change their perspective. The Hall of Fame, as it stands now, is one further example of how professional football fails to acknowledge or care about the victims of the behaviors they claim to abhor.