The Pro Bowl may be the one exhibition game in professional sports that the players have no desire to participate in.
This has probably always been the case, but the players’ attitude toward this year’s game seems even more apathetic than in years past.
In actuality, think about the Pro Bowl as opposed to all other all-star games. It’s the only one that takes place after the regular season, after sixteen games and seventeen weeks of the most grueling sport on the planet, one that causes most former players to have CTE, the disease that slowly but surely destroys the brain in those who sustain multiple concussions and sub-concussive impacts. It also makes most players, especially those who made the playoffs, feel worn out and in need of a break from the game. This was never more evident than in the amount of withdrawals from this year’s Pro Bowl.
This year, 133 players were invited to Hawaii to play in the game. By my count, only 94 are actually making the trip, and the 133 invites set a new record for the amount of players who were asked to play. The NFL has taken numerous measures to attempt to make the Pro Bowl more appealing to viewers, but it’s kind of hard to appeal to a viewing audience when you can’t even appeal to your own employees.
Among these measures is having Hall of Famers pick the teams for the game. Instead of having an AFC vs. NFC format, the league decided to have legends such as Michael Irvin, Cris Carter, Jerry Rice and Deion Sanders pick the teams. This practice began in 2013, after years of Pro Bowl irrelevance. Unsurprisingly, the presence of the former players changed approximately nothing in terms of the relevance of the contest.
What exactly is the problem with the game? All you have to do is watch it for five minutes and you’ll see. It just isn’t played like a regular game; it isn’t physical in the least and the players who are playing in the game really don’t give it much of an effort. If you want one sequence to serve as a microcosm for what the game has become, you need to look no further than this play in the 2013 game, when referee Ed Hochuli set the record straight on how the game was being played:
“Yes, there are penalties in the Pro Bowl.” Truer words have never been spoken. I hate to say it, but the game has become soft, which is certainly a far cry from when the late great Sean Taylor temporarily ended the life of Bills punter Brian Moorman.
Football is the last sport in the world that can be described as soft, so watching the Pro Bowl is essentially not like watching real football. However, the MLB All-Star Game is not exactly like a real baseball game; the same is true with the NBA All-Star Game. So why is the Pro Bowl so much more irrelevant than the exhibitions of other sports?
It’s simple; the players aren’t interested. Eli Manning is starting the game for Team Rice, and while he is one of the best quarterbacks in football (don’t get me started on that one), he isn’t one of the two best available quarterbacks for the game. The fact that players competing in the Super Bowl cannot play thins the talent pool some, but you can still find two quarterbacks better than Eli Manning. This is a byproduct of the withdrawals of Philip Rivers, Aaron Rodgers, Carson Palmer and others.
The other reason why the Pro Bowl struggles is because the game just isn’t that fun. While you can tell that LeBron James, Steph Curry and Kevin Durant don’t care all that much about the NBA All-Star Game, they actually make the game more fun by attempting more entertaining plays, like some of these from last year’s contest:
The NBA players do not take the game seriously, but that is part of what makes it an enjoyable watch. The other enjoyable part of the NBA and MLB All-Star proceedings has nothing to do with the games themselves; rather, the most enjoyable things about these games have to be the skills contests. Baseball has the Home Run Derby, which is one of the best events on the sport’s calendar. It gets all of the great players of the game in one place and creates another night of fun for fans of the sport during the All-Star break. And, the NBA, of course, has Saturday Night of All-Star weekend all to itself. The Three-Point Contest, Skills Contest and Slam Dunk Contest have the same effect as the Home Run Derby; they give the players a stage all to themselves to do things we wouldn’t see during games. All-Star Saturday night is one of the great events in sports, and it’s something that the NFL could have… if the league wanted it.
The NFL could have the players engage in some type of skills contest before the game. The idea of holding some type of punt, pass, and kick contest with professional players could be a good idea. Moving the NFL Honors show, which presently occurs the night before the Super Bowl, to the night before the Pro Bowl, would make more players go to the game the next day; however, holding an awards show in Hawaii might be a challenge.
Or, the NFL could do what I think is the best idea of all, which would be to just get rid of the game altogether. This is what Greg Bedard wrote for Sports Illustrated in a roundtable about improving the game:
Get rid of it. No one cares and it stinks. Look, football isn’t baseball, basketball or hockey, where you can have an all-star break in the middle of the season and the game might loosely resemble the real product. The injury risk is too high. Combine that with the fact that the true stars of the game never actually go, and exactly what are we trying to accomplish here? The lone possible alternative would be some sort of combination of Battle of the Network Stars, MTV’s The Challenge and a skills competition. All-star games are cool for one reason: All the best players are in the same place at the same time. I don’t care if it’s for a dinner party at midfield at Aloha Stadium—find something that can do that for NFL players.
He’s right. The NFL needs to find a way to get all of its players together in the same place. Until they do, we as fans will continue to be wholly disinterested in the Pro Bowl.
And we’ll be wondering why it even exists at all.