Is a Hall of Fame About Being Good or Looking Good?

Why bother with a hall of fame? Most pro sports seem to have them, at least in the United States. Some college sports do too and there are also lists of past winners of annual awards like the Heisman Trophy and the Hobey Baker Prize for the best male college hockey player. One Heisman winner, Dick Kazmaier (Princeton 1951) went so far as to name the best female college hockey player award for his late daughter, Patty.

What are the criteria for being honored? Skill alone or does behavior off the field matter?

Pete Rose is not in the Baseball Hall of Fame despite his greatness on the field. Betting on games did him in. Nor are Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa or Rafael Palmiero, all of whom made the wrong decision with respect to performance enhancing drugs.

OJ Simpson still appears as the 1968 Heisman Trophy winner but he is ignored in the annual ceremonies. So is Reggie Bush, who gave his back.

The listing of Tour de France winners has a multi-year gap where Lance Armstrong’s name appeared. He is not alone.


The statue of Joe Paterno was removed from the front of Beaver Stadium at Penn State thanks to his role in the Jerry Sandusky scandal.

How do you think Michael Vick will do in hall of fame balloting?

In “O.J. Who? Rogues Vanish From Annals of Sport,” Richard Sandomir asks if this “cleansing more commonly associated with authoritarian governments” is appropriate?

By the way, what did Kim Jong Un’s uncle look like? He too has disappeared.

Likely most would shrug their shoulders and agree that a sport can put its best foot forward in its self promotion, but are the sports that cleanse their histories really doing the right thing or are they simply trying to look like they are doing the right thing.

To think about that question, let’s turn to the economics and decision theory work of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. Though far better known in investment management circles, their loss aversion theory might help sports administrators to make a difference rather just burnish their images.

According to the loss aversion theory, people strongly prefer avoiding losses to making gains. Maybe twice as much.

Following this idea to a logical conclusion, a hall of fame would be better served to publicize the shortcomings of disgraced athletes than to simply ignore them.

The athletes might then consider the prospect of being shamed when they make the decisions that get them in trouble in the first place.

There might be more justification for a hall of fame if it changes conduct going forward then if it just wags fingers looking backward.