Eddie Debartolo

Crime and/or punishment: the different HOF experiences of Eddie DeBartolo Jr. and Terrell Owens

Eddie Debartolo last game Candlestick Park Jed York Chris Berman Terrell Owens Jerry Rice

Eddie DeBartolo Jr. was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame yesterday after three years as a finalist. Terrell Owens, second all-time in receiving yards and third all-time in receiving touchdowns, didn’t even make the cut when 15 finalists were whittled down to 10.

It was Owens’ first time going through the process, and eventually he’ll get his gold jacket. But it’s striking how DeBartolo made it after getting turned away so many times, while Owens didn’t get the first ballot honor.

Neither man is perfect. Owens was a pain in the ass in the locker room, a true diva. However, one could argue that DeBartolo’s transgressions were far worse.

— DeBartolo was separated from his 49ers after pleading guilty to a felony, thanks to former Louisiana Governor Edwin Edwards extorting $400,000 from DeBartolo for a riverboat casino license. As a part of his plea deal, DeBartolo paid a $1 million fine and testified against Edwards.

— From a 1999 feature on DeBartolo in SFGate:

An ex-player viewed DeBartolo’s volatility less charitably.

“Is he a good guy? Yes. Is he capable of being a beast? Yes,” the player told a reporter.

Cocktail waitress Gina Baross said she saw the beast in 1992. In a claim by her attorney that was backed by a detailed police report, the waitress accused DeBartolo of sexually assaulting her at a party at his Menlo Park condo.

DeBartolo, who denied doing anything improper, never was charged, but he reportedly paid her $200,000 to settle the case out of court.

— Carmen Policy was fined $400,000 and Dwight Clark $200,000 for circumventing the salary cap in the mid-1990s. John York reportedly found evidence of the “undisclosed agreements” and vague future promises (translation: cash that didn’t count against the cap) to Steve Young, Brent Jones, Jim Druckenmiller and Lee Woodall — all of which took place on DeBartolo’s watch — and the 49ers were forced to forfeit a third-rounder and a fifth-rounder when the Yorks were in charge.

***

Bribery, alleged assault, and cheating. That’s a lot of evidence stacked on the other side of the ledger, even for the only owner in NFL history to win five Super Bowls. However, DeBartolo got some extra help this year. First, the Super Bowl is in the Bay Area, which tied DeBartolo’s Hall of Fame bid in a pretty red and gold bow. Second, Daniel Brown of the Mercury News wrote a touching piece on the ways DeBartolo has helped former 49ers players and other assorted employees.

Brown was exceedingly humble. DeBartolo absolutely needed his help to get over 80% of the vote. Brown’s story is phenomenal (and well worth your time if you haven’t read it already).

I’m not sure if it’s a strictly American thing, as people like to say. I think all people like to forgive … after several years and proof that a person’s good qualities outweigh whatever he or she did that worthy of punishment.

This goes for Owens, who made several errors during his career. It wasn’t his fault he never won a Super Bowl, but implying Jeff Garcia gay wasn’t well-received. Owens played for five teams, which isn’t a very Hall of Fame thing to do. He complained that Tony Romo preferred throwing to Jason Witten over him. But most of all, Owens was a blatant self-promoter in the age that preceded social media. Self-promotion is often considered cute or clever now, but Owens’ antics angered many folks during his “get your popcorn ready” days.

As Owens has pointed out several times, he has never been in legal trouble. He played extremely hard. He backed up his words and celebrations, more often than not. And quite a few people have mentioned that he’s nicer in real life than he has appeared on television, and the “T.O.” character was nothing like the personality he showed when he first joined the 49ers.

If he lets people in a little, and shows he has moments where he cares for people other than himself, he’ll make it into Canton fairly quickly. All it would take is a documentary or a story similar to Brown’s piece on DeBartolo to change the conversation about Owens, and usher him into the Hall of Fame.

Owens was punished for his brash displays this week, and he knew it. He told ESPN after last night’s Warriors/Thunder game that he wasn’t disappointed, but he felt “disrespected.” He has a right to be unapologetic, to let his numbers speak. But when a bunch of writers get in a room, craving remorse and/or redemption, the punishment could stretch another year or longer if they don’t think their message has gotten through to the “criminal” in question.

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