Georgia Sports Hall of Fame debates membership requirements

Electorate tinkers with rules that could keep out famous athletes

Talking about best heavyweight champs? Can't leave out Ezzard Charles, who claimed boxing's most recognized title in 1949 and successfully defended it eight times, once against the immortal Joe Louis.

Both have been honored far and wide, but neither by the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. Both met a basic criterion for entry -- a Georgia birth certificate.

However, many in the electorate disagree with that provision. They insist that an athlete whose playing career blossomed beyond the state's borders does not belong in the Hall.

For three years, the Hall has been tinkering with new rules that could seal out Brown, Charles and others for good. Officials have proposed a revision that would allow for natives to be declared ineligible if the election board concluded they left the state too early to contribute significantly to Georgia sports.

"You can spend 20 minutes here, move out of state and be eligible for the Hall," said Bobby Pope, GSHF Authority chairman. "Some people are opposed to that."

Also, a non-native under consideration would have to maintain an official Georgia residence for 10 consecutive years under a new stipulation. That could eliminate out-of-state athletes at Georgia colleges who then moved after their eligibility expired, as well as pros who lived in the state for less than a decade.

Pope cited recent inductee Terry Hoage -- a native of Iowa who made All-America defensive back at the University of Georgia in the early 1980s, then fled for the NFL -- as an example of someone who might be excluded if the proposals pass.

The recommendations, subject to change, are scheduled to be voted on Jan. 12. Current nominees would be grandfathered in.

Pope, athletics director at Mercer University, said the revisions would bring uniformity to the process. The current system permits candidates to be denied consideration even if they meet the standards.

Brown, the most glaring omission, spent his first eight years on St. Simon's Island, then migrated with his mother to New York state. When he retired from the Cleveland Browns after the 1965 season, Brown held nearly every NFL rushing record.

"He's always on the [GSHF nomination] list but has never gotten far in the process," authority member Ray Lamb said.

To Lamb, athletes in Brown's category are better left off the ballot.

"The person should have done something with the state of Georgia and contributed to it," he said. "If you're only born in the state and never did anything there, should they be in [the Hall]?"

Fellow member Stan Lomax argues that Brown has brought credit to Georgia.

"Why isn't he selected?" Lomax said. "His qualifications are ignored."

Charles was born in Lawrenceville, then relocated to Cincinnati at age 9 to live with his grandmother. In 2002, Ring Magazine ranked him as the greatest light heavyweight, Charles' division before he bulked up to heavyweight.

One commonly voiced argument is that a place in the Georgia Hall would mean little to someone such as Brown, who has been feted on a much larger scale.

Lomax contends the door should swing open to more African-Americans from previous generations whose families moved north out of necessity for better opportunities. He bangs the drum loudest for those whose accomplishments at historically black colleges, many of whom were prohibited from attending "white" schools, went largely unrecognized by the media and public.

"There seems to be a lack of awareness about the history of sports in Georgia," said Lomax, retired football coach at Fort Valley State. "Any [black] athlete who happened to be born here prior to integration must receive strong consideration. It's the right thing to do."

Lomax notes that athletes from that era were penalized by living in a segregated society. "Now we're penalizing them a second time," he said.

Lamb, who coached high school football for 35 years, acknowledged that options for black athletes in Georgia were once limited. Still, he favors a minimum number of years for candidates directly involved with sports in the state.

The Hall, located in Macon, has welcomed more than 300 sports achievers, including running backs Leon Hardeman, Joe Geri, Bill Mathis and Buck Flowers.

The nominating and screening committees made an exception for one renowned back athlete. Jackie Robinson of Cairo moved to California, later becoming the first black MLB player and a member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

When the family left Georgia, he was 20 months old.

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.