Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Hall of Shame: Reflecting on My Weekend in Canton

This past Saturday, Marshall Faulk, Deion Sanders, and Shannon Sharpe stood in front of a camera and told the whole world how grateful and humbled they were to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame. They each connected with their fans with some form of rags to riches story and either made himself or an immediate family member shed a tear. Faulk even went so far as to say “I am a football fan just like all of you.”

Just don’t expect your brothers-in-fandom to sign any of your memorabilia. 

For the 13th time in the past 15 Augusts, I was in Canton, Ohio with my dad for HOF Induction Weekend. We don’t actually go to the induction ceremonies, and I rarely even see the highlights of them on SportsCenter either, because for the majority of the Friday-Monday weekend, we sit in lawn chairs within a fenced-off area outside of the hotel where the Hall-of-Famers stay in an attempt to get free autographs. That doesn’t even include the 10-16 hours we spend in the Akron-Canton airport on Thursday trying to get autographs near the baggage claim.

It’s even less exciting than it sounds; but for many a year, there were fruits to our labor. I would conservatively estimate that we used to bring home at least 100 autographs from each pilgrimage to Canton; and add another 50+ in the years before my younger brother decided he was too busy to help with daddy’s hobby anymore.

However, for a number of reasons, it’s been getting progressively worse over the past few years.

Some of it is the fault of the Hall of Fame itself. We used to be able to sit along the wall outside the HOF building and ask guys for autographs as they were coming in or out of the building. When my brother and I were young (and adorable) enough to get away with it, we could even follow guys into the building and get them to sign things. Hell, I don’t think we ever would have gotten a Hank Stram autograph if we hadn’t spotted him in the HOF Gift Store one year. But nowadays, even if you’re willing to pay the $20 to park in a lawn within half a mile of the Hall, you’re more likely to get a pistol past the TSA than you are to get a sharpie and something to sign beyond the front door of the Hall of Fame.

But I can understand that; I wouldn’t want grown men who haven’t showered in 2+ days running around in my building disturbing the peace either.

The $60 “Fan Appreciation Tailgate Party” is where their security routine crossed the line, though. The event was advertised as a two hour period in which “a contingent of returning Hall of Famers will mix, mingle, and celebrate with the fans.” Also on the website, they advertised “all inclusive beer” and “an impressive buffet,” so when the event began and I had the choice of Bud or Bud Light to pair with a variety of terrifyingly undercooked food, I should have known that I was in for an evening full of false advertisement.

The returning Hall of Famers briefly appeared in groups of 2 for a Q&A Session with Joe DeLamielleure, and afterwards left the tent in the most liberal definition of “mix, mingle, and celebrate” that I’ve ever been a part of. There were six security guards that surrounded each Hall of Famer shouting “No autographs!” as they moved through the tent in what could best be described as a mobile rugby scrum. If you were particularly lucky, you were able to get a handshake from a former player as they power walked through the crowd on their way to and from their golf carts, ensuring they didn’t spend more than 12 minutes in the tent, 11 of which were spent on the stage with Joe D. So thanks for nothing, HOF. Next year, save us some trouble and about $50 and just recommend that we sneak some Natty Light into an Old Country Buffet where we can ask for directions to the nearest airport from the bus boys who don’t speak English; that’s about how satisfied and accommodated that we felt after the Fan Appreciation Tailgate Party.

But even when we weren’t being physically subdued by someone with a badge-inspired ego, few guys were willing to spend 5 minutes signing for the fans who had been sitting in the sun for upwards of 96 hours for them. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the Hall-of-Famers are great signers on an annual basis, and we were all eternally grateful for the generosity of guys like Raymond Berry, Dick Butkus, Paul Krause, Bob Lilly, Lenny Moore, Anthony Munoz, Gale Sayers, Jan Stenerud, and a few others that I’m surely missing due to sleep deprivation. But for every Lenny Moore in the Hall, there are a handful of Darrell Greens who won’t sign an autograph to raise money for charity unless he gets paid for it (true story).

Case in point: Every year, the new inductees are expected to appear for an autograph session. The price for said autograph session has been increasing at an alarming rate for the past decade; but I know for a fact that it used to be less than $100 per ticket. This year, it was $300 to get one autograph each from Sanders, Sharpe, Faulk, Richard Dent, and Chris Hanburger. But don’t think you can just get anything signed: Sharpe and Sanders would only sign flats (no balls or helmets) and would only add a “HOF 2011” inscription to their signature for an additional $50. If you wanted Sharpe or Sanders on a helmet or ball, you could purchase a ticket to an additional session with just the two of them for another $250, and you would still be paying $50 for an HOF inscription. In case you weren’t doing the math, that’s $750 for 7 autographs. And after all those price negotiations, Deion Sanders had the audacity to not even show up.

What used to be an enjoyable hobby of meeting your favorite players and collecting signed memorabilia has become a contest in which only the richest of fans can remain competitive. As class acts like Chuck Bednarik, Art Donovan, and John Mackey age, decline in health, and unfortunately pass away, they are “replaced” by guys like Faulk, Sharpe, and Sanders who have been pampered for their entire careers, including college and their second careers in broadcasting, and they simply don’t see fraternizing with their fans as a good use of their time.

The obvious culprit is the outrageous contracts that athletes have been signing for the past two decades. Changing sports for a moment, I was in Cooperstown last summer, and there was a store that had an entire wall covered with glass cubes of autographed baseballs, along with the price to purchase each ball. Brooks Robinson, arguably the greatest fielding third basemen of all-time, with an “HOF 83” inscription, was $25. A Colby Rasmus ball was more than double that. The asking price for Alex Rodriguez was $700. It doesn’t make any sense, but when a guy gets paid $30,000,000 per year to hit a baseball, it’s not worth his time to sign one for less than $500.

The same is the case in football. “Prime Time” signed a $56 million deal with the Redskins in 2000 while all-time greats are left unable to pay their medical bills because of the comparatively measly amount of money they were paid to destroy their bodies for our entertainment. And rather than giving time to the fans or money to charities or their predecessors, these new guys spend it on hookers and alimony payments. Honestly, I saw more female escorts than Super Bowl rings this past weekend. It’s downright shameful, and we’re downright pathetic for sitting in our lawn chairs for four days in hopes that they’ll grace us with their presence.

But that’s the world we live in. Maybe you don’t care about autographs at all, but if you’re still reading this thing, you’re probably one of the millions in this country that slaves away at your nine to five just to get by, and then spent your summer evenings holding your breath for 130 some odd days to find out that the people we idolize were able to figure out how to split the $9,000,000,000 that we pay them on an annual basis for tickets, parking, merchandise, and commercial spots.

Perhaps I’m just becoming jaded at my old age of 24. But regardless of how I feel about NFL paychecks and their gratitude for the die-hard fans, I’ll still spend 20 hours every week this fall and winter preparing for my half dozen fantasy leagues and dozens upon dozens of terrible gambling decisions; but I’m done unsuccessfully begging for John Hancocks.

Do people still collect trading cards?


  1. I used to collect autographs (and trading cards) but now that I'm an adult (in a legal sense atleast) it feels a little strange to ask someone younger or closer to my age for their autograph, and I'm way to cheap to pay for one.

    Autographs, trading cards, buying college football preview magazines in August and a program when you go to a game - I feel those are all becoming things of the 90's (just like Shannon Sharpe and Deion Sanders).

  2. Of course Rasmus is worth more... he IS a Blue Jay now.