SHOULD BAFFERT-LIKE DRUG VIOLATIONS PRECLUDE HALL OF FAME ELIGIBILITY?

Trainer extraordinaire Bob Baffert was inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame in 2009.  His enshrinement certainly won’t be rescinded irrespective of a documented record of equine drug violations, including most notoriously Medina Spirit in the 2021 Kentucky Derby and eventual Triple Crown winner Justify in the 2018 Santa Anita Derby.  Suppose, however, in the future a trainer with obvious qualifications comes along who has not yet been inducted into the HOF and has had similar drug infractions as Baffert does now.  Would he or she be deserving of induction?

There are two schools of thought about HOF eligibility.  One line of thinking says that the only standard is an individual’s record of achievement in actual competition. What he or she has done “within the white lines” is what counts and egregious behavior outside competition should not be a criterion.  The other perspective is that a person’s total resume needs to be evaluated and that off-the-field conduct is relevant.

Pete Rose is inarguably one of the most accomplished players in Major League Baseball history. He is not in the MLB Hall of Fame for betting on MLB games as a player and manager for the Cincinnati Reds. MLB classified Rose as “permanently ineligible.” Later in life, he was convicted of tax evasion and served prison time. Thus Rose has both on-field and off-field transgressions.

By contrast, the late great Green Bay Packer running back Paul Hornung is in the NFL Hall of Fame despite being suspended “indefinitely” by the NFL commissioner in 1963 for betting on games and associating with shady characters.  In 1964, Hornung was reinstated.  He was eventually inducted into the NFL HOF, in 1986, due to his redemptive behavior after returning from his suspension. 

If overall character were a criterion for HOF eligibility, at least some of the inductees in the major sporting hall of fames would not qualify.  For example, one of the legendary MLB players was a known racist, which is repulsive but is not illegal.  On the other hand, an alleged murderer and convicted felon like O. J. Simpson, who is in the NFL HOF, would likely have not become a Hall of Famer if his criminal record had predated his HOF induction.

Whether an individual’s infractions should disqualify him or her from HOF induction first and foremost depends on if the infractions were directly related to competition.  For instance, some of the record-holding MLB players of the “steroid era” have not been awarded HOF enshrinement because performance-enhancing drugs contributed to their prowess.

In the case of Baffert, the multiple infractions he has incurred pertained to racing horses on performance-enhancing drugs outlawed by state racing commissions, which, if he had not already been inducted, would make his HOF eligibility problematic. Could one of the all-time best trainers be kept out of the HOF? Ask Barry Bonds, MLB’s all-time home-run leader, or Roger Clemens, one of the most dominating pitchers in MLB history, both of whom have tainted records owing to steroid use.

Rather than leave decisions up to voters, the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame needs to craft and publicize unambiguous language about conduct “detrimental to the best interests of racing”–within and outside competition–that automatically makes a trainer ineligible for HOF consideration.

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