Sporting awards that aren’t based on performance - think the Golden Boot in the World Cup - will always be debated. And often the choices of who wins these awards - ranging from something like Player of the Year for a federation to the Golden Ball at the World Cup - are met with skepticism or down right derision among fans.
The Hall of Fame in any sport is - at its core - just another award. But it is an award that players in American sports tend to wear as a lifelong badge of pride. One of the first lines - if not the first - when writing about that player for the rest of their life and even after it’s done. It is to sports what the Medal of Honor is to the US military.
In most sports in the US it’s a pretty straight forward process of voting athletes into the Hall of Fame. The selection committee looks at the list of players and slowly works down the list until they have the select few names that will be included. And while some players voted in during past years might be a little under the bar and some players may be left out for off the field reasons, the process more or less works. Most of the time.
Problems start to arise when a group is tasked with inducting players for two main camps of players - in U.S. Soccer’s case from pools of male players and female players - who have wildly different bars to clear to get their enshrinement.
The Selection Committee
On the face of it, the selection committee doesn’t sound that bad.
The Committee consists of all present and former coaches of the Men’s and Women’s full National Team; all active MLS and NWSL coaches with a minimum of 4 years as head coach in a first division league; MLS and NWSL management representatives; MLS Commissioner; NWSL Executive Director; U.S. Soccer Secretary General; U.S. Soccer President; designated members of the media; all Hall of Famers.
Until you start to do the math and think about the sheer number of people that make up the committee and how few of them have any sort of experience with women’s soccer.
Let’s start with the coaches. “All present and former coaches of the Men’s and Women’s full National Team”.
On the men’s side that would include 11 former Men’s National Team head coaches: Gregg Berhalter, Dave Sarachan, Bruce Arena, Jürgen Klinsmann, Bob Bradley, Steve Sampson, Bora Milutinović, John Kowalski, Bob Gansler, Lothar Osiander, and Gordon Jago vs seven former Women’s National Team head coaches Anson Dorrance, April Heinrichs, Greg Ryan, Pia Sundhage, Tom Sermanni, Jill Ellis, and Vlatko Andonovski.
Next we have “all active MLS and NWSL coaches with a minimum of 4 years as head coach in a first division league.”
That would be 14 MLS coaches, by my math, if we don’t count those already with votes: Adrian Heath, Ben Olsen, Brian Schmetzer, Caleb Porter, Diego Alonso, Frank de Boer, Freddy Juarez, Gary Smith, Greg Vanney, Jim Curtin, Matías Almeyda, Óscar Pareja, Peter Vermes, Ronny Deila vs five in the NWSL: Rory Dames, Paul Riley, Marc Skinner, Mark Parsons, Farid Benstiti.
Third up is “MLS and NWSL management representatives”. Twenty-six MLS clubs would get a vote to the nine NWSL clubs.
The MLS Commissioner; NWSL Executive Director; U.S. Soccer Secretary General; U.S. Soccer President all get votes.
Now here is the fun part. All Hall of Famers also get a vote. There are about 300 people told in the Hall of Fame, about 9.7% are women. Now all 300 or so people who have been elected to the Hall of Fame are not with us anymore. Though even if we only go back to 1998, the very first year a woman - April Heinrichs - was inducted, 48 men have been elected as players to the women’s 15. And those 15? They are all players and that’s all that have ever made the cut.
There are also members of the media who vote. That list is not public.
That means of the public names who vote: roughly 100 of the votes come from the men’s side of the game and 37 come from the women’s side of the game.
That means - outside of the media members who vote - even if every USWNT coach, NWSL coach, USWNT player put a person on their 10-person ballet, that person would still need a little over half of the votes from the men’s side to get that person in to the Hall of Fame.
The Double Standard of Exceptions
I know what you’re thinking. If a player is good enough for the Hall of Fame shouldn’t former players, former Men’s National Team coaches and current MLS coaches and management representatives know about them and think they are good enough to vote in?
Maybe, but that would would carry a whole lot more water for me if I believed more than 20% of the votes coming from the men’s side of soccer could pick out three Hall of Fame caliber NWSL players from a lineup of 10 people.
Let’s take a look at the on paper eligibility criteria directly from the National Soccer Hall of Fame’s website.
The eligibility criteria to be a candidate for the Hall of Fame are as follows:
In order to meet the player eligibility criteria established by the Board of Directors, a player must have met No. 1 and either No. 2, No. 3 or No. 4 of the following four criteria:
1) A player must have been retired for at least three full calendar years, but for no more than 10 full calendar years (for purposes of the 2014 election, this means that a player must have retired no later than 2010 and no earlier than 2004).
2) A player must have played at least 20 full international games for the United States. This 20-game requirement is reduced to 10 games if the games were prior to 1990.
3) A player must have played at least five seasons in an American first-division professional league and been a postseason league all-star at least once.
4) Played at least five seasons in the Major Indoor Soccer League between the end of the NASL in 1984 and the end of the MISL in 1992, and been selected as a first-team postseason all-star in at least one of those seasons.
Vague, which is what these things usually are. But because they are so vague it explains the voting patterns of the Hall of Fame in two ways: 1) votes tend to “stay in their lane” and if you’ve got a background in men’s soccer, voters tend to look there first and toss in famous names second, and 2) the bar for women to make the Hall of Fame is somewhere just shy of the moon.
Seriously, take a look at the list of 15 women who have made the cut: Abby Wambach, April Heinrichs, Brandi Chastain, Briana Scurry, Carin Jennings-Gabarra, Carla Overbeck, Cindy Parlow, Joy Fawcett, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Mia Hamm, Michelle Akers, Shannon Higgins, Shannon MacMillan, and Tiffeny Milbrett.
Each and every one of these players is in the top 200 of players to play women’s soccer. Period. Not just in the US but in the global game. The bar is set so high for any woman that is up for election that it makes it impossible to take a very good player.
The truth about Halls of Fame is that most of the players who are inducted are not among the best 1% of players of that league or sport. They aren’t usually just the top 10% either. Likely they are somewhere in the top 20% to 25%, sometimes lower. And that’s OK. It’s OK to widen out the criteria so players who have impacted the game, but who maybe aren’t in the top 50 to ever play the game, are included.
It does a disservice to women’s soccer at-large and to the women who play the game specifically to have the bar set so high on the women’s side and so in the middle on the men’s side.
I am not going to start picking out male players and comparing them to their female counterparts and say that this player or that shouldn’t have gotten in. I could and the list is long enough it would be a bit of a blood bath. But that won’t solve the problem. But there should be no questions that players like Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny or Lauren Holiday will get a strong showing in the voting and might just get in. Players like Amy LePeilbet, Kate Markgraf and Kelly Smith should be talked about and debated. There should be debate about their careers, not just a feeling they will be forgotten by those tasked with voting because their accomplishments came while being women.
How to Go Forward
The only way to change how things happen is - to put it bluntly - to change things.
Having separate voting for the women and the men elected would be one way to do it. Let people who know the women’s game vote. Let the Meg Linehan’s or Dan Lauletta’s of the world debate Amy LePeilbet vs Lori Chalupny.
It could be as easy as automatic voting to your area of expertise and if you also want to vote on the other side, you can request it. It would take power away from people who have neglected it for too long while they had it and give it to those who care enough to take a long look at each player nominated.
The voting on the whole list could stay the same and the pool of voters could be expanded as another option. Players with over 100 appearances in the NWSL or USWNT could be given votes even if they are not in the Hall of Fame themselves. The NWSL media at-large could be given votes to be able to help give more of a voice to those who know the women’s game in the country the best.
There are a lot of ways to change how things are done but they all require changes to be made. US Soccer and the National Soccer Hall of Fame have to be willing to adapt to bring more women into the tent. Or for the next 22 years we might see a handful of wondrous women make the cut while dozens of mediocre men are added.
Oh, and in 2020?
I don’t have a vote but if I did my ballot would be as follows: