The greatest result that will come from canceling the Pro Bowl will be the final silencing of all cries to cancel the Pro Bowl.
On a radio program earier this week, Roger Goodell threatened to cancel the Pro Bowl if the standard of play does not improve. Wait, that doesn’t sound right. He promised to cancel the Pro Bowl if play doesn’t improve. He vowed on the gravestone of our interest in the event to cancel it. It is hard to get the timbre of the comments just right.
Players no doubt reacted to Goodell’s threat-promise-vow the way children do when dad says that accordion lessons will cease, once and for all, if they don’t start practicing more earnestly. “Really, that’s all it will take to end this horror?”
Actually, players promised to try harder during the game, damn them. But then the kids usually claim they will amp up the intensity on their “Beer Barrel Polka” studies, and it only lasts about five minutes.
Fans ignored the latest Pro Bowl sound bite. There was too much else going on early in the week: an NLCS Game 7, the Bears beating the Lions, a nationally televised “Civilization” video game strategy guide starring Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. If you ignore the Pro Bowl, you are likely to ignore someone talking or writing about ignoring the Pro Bowl, an irony lost on football writers, myself included, who dutifully began typing up stories about the Pro Bowl.
Or at least, searching our document folders for last year’s “Cancel the Pro Bowl” article, to see if anyone notices if we recycled a few zingers.
You never forget where you were when you heard your first Pro Bowl joke.
I was 13 years old, reading a book about football pointspreading on my back porch in April of 1984. (Yes, I read books about pointspreading when I was 13, on April afternoons. Don’t judge me.) The book, now lost to history, contained useful information about the vigorish and the push and how bettors react irrationally to quarterback changes. It also contained a few paragraphs about betting preseason games (a sign you have a problem, but that’s not how it was presented in 1984), betting playoff games and the Super Bowl. Finally, a sentence about the Pro Bowl:
There is no reason to ever bet on a Pro Bowl. There is also no reason to ever watch one.
Zing! At the time, I had no idea that the Pro Bowl was anything less than top-notch entertainment. I rooted hard for the NFC. Heck, I was the type of kid who watched the “Celebrity Comedy Football Classic,” a 1979 broadcasting gimmick (for charity, I think, and hope) in which Burt Reynolds and Tim Conway yukked it up in the booth while actors went through the motions of flag football, constantly stopping to give Charo or Cathy Lee Crosby mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when they suddenly swooned on the field. Compared to the sight of LeVar Burton running routes, the NFC’s 45-3 victory after the 1983 season was football poetry.
But the Pro Bowl was already a joke by the mid-1980s. Here are some excerpts from an article by Bob Rubin of the Miami Herald after that 45-3 game, played the same day as the NBA all-star game:
The contrast between the two all-star games Sunday was startling -- and predictable. The NBA put on a show; the NFL put you to sleep.
The NFL's Pro Bowl began as the NBA game was finishing. It was a trip from a disco to a library.
Football flops because everyone is so interdependent that it's impossible to put together a credible team in one week. That's especially true on offense, where it takes years to develop the cohesiveness and timing of a top NFL team.
It's played a month after many of the participants last donned pads, so they're rusty and a bit soft -- and they're strangers. Plus, after a week of R&R with the family in Hawaii, who is going to be psyched to kill himself when the incentive is a piddling (for most of these guys) five grand? The best part of the Pro Bowl used to be Fran Tarkenton's annual exotic medical excuse not to show -- psoriasis of the throwing elbow, etc.
Who needs the Pro Bowl?
That was three decades ago. There is nothing to add. Criticism of the Pro Bowl has not advanced substantively in 30 years. The only thing that’s different is the size of the paycheck and the fact that the NBA All-Star Game has gotten pretty dull, too.
And as Rubin indicated in 1984, the Pro Bowl wasn’t just a joke, but an old joke: Tarkenton had been blowing off the game for years. Reynolds and Conway may not have cracked any Pro Bowl jokes during the "Celebrity Comedy Football Classic," but only because they had such legendarily lofty standards about not rehashing stale gags.
The Pro Bowl wasn’t always a joke.
The first “Pro Bowl,” as opposed to an NFL All-Star Game, took place in 1951. The league stopped hosting All-Star games during World War II and didn’t get around to starting again until the Korean conflict. But when they finally organized the Pro Bowl, the game was swell, with Otto Graham scoring twice in the third quarter to lead the American Division to a 28-27 victory. “Cleveland Flash Scores Twice to Nip National ‘11” ran the headline in the Long Beach Independent. “The professional ‘dream game,’ featuring 62 of the sport’s outstanding stars, was more than just another post-season exhibition,” the article read. “All the players were leveling and the play was as fierce as that ever seen in a championship struggle.”
There was still some leveling and ferocity in 1971, when the Pro Bowl became the AFC-NFC Pro Bowl after the AFL merger. “The majority of players on the American Conference team are from the old AFL,” Jim Otto told The Associated Press before the game. “So from that standpoint, it’s almost like AFL versus NFL.” The old AFL lost, 27-6, before 48,222 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Read that attendance figure again: 48,222 fans in the Los Angeles Coliseum, which had a seating capacity of 2.3 billion. The Pro Bowl was clearly in trouble then, even when the newly merged league could market it as a grudge match and the players had some real scores to settle. Matters only got worse as the 1970s wore on, the league moved the game to new venues and Monday nights to find an audience. That’s when Tarkenton began stretching the limits of medical science to find excuses to stay home.
By 1976, the Superdome crowd was down to 32,108, the game was on Monday night, and Tarkenton was joined on the absentee list by NFC quarterbacks Roger Staubach, Steve Bartkowski and Archie Manning. The hero of the 1976 game was Mike Boryla, the Eagles backup quarterback whose Pro Bowl credentials included a late-season hot streak and a willingness to participate. Boryla was the John Skelton of 1976, but he relieved starter Jim Hart and threw two touchdown passes to Hart’s best receivers, Terry Metcalf and Mel Gray, to give the NFC the win. Boryla throwing to Cardinals receivers would have been ironic if anyone was around to care.
That was 1976, eight years before Rubin’s “Who Needs the Pro Bowl,” 36 years before Goodell’s threat to cancel the game if it doesn’t meet the lofty standards of Mike Boryla thrilling a Superdome smattering.
It is important to note that NFL players of the 1950s through the early 1970s were able to gear themselves up for all manner of promotional gimmicks. There was the Chicago All-Star Game, which pitted the NFL champion against college All-Stars in a July exhibition. That tradition somehow survived until 1976. The “Playoff Bowl” forced the losers of the NFL divisional playoff rounds to battle it out in a consolation game. That ended in 1970. NFL teams sometimes played exhibitions against CFL teams -- think about that for a second -- from 1950 to 1961. The Giants beat the Ottawa Rough Riders, 41-18, in August of 1951. After a game like that, the Pro Bowl must have felt pretty legitimate.
All of these exhibitions outlived their purpose by several years; really, sending a Senior Bowl squad out to face the Steelers in 1976 was like sending a kindergarten class to dig a coal mine. None of them lasted 35 years past their shelf life. Instead of criticizing the Pro Bowl, we should marvel at its resilience.
Most “Cancel the Pro Bowl” articles include some section about how to “fix” the game. The suggestions are sometimes constructive (make it count somehow, turn it into a two-minute drill contest to award NBA-style back-and-forth play) but are usually purposely silly (Obstacles! Celebrities!), because the point of all of these articles is to amuse you. Pro Bowl articles are the football equivalent of reviews of movies everyone knows are awful. The goal is to get some laughs from an easy target.
Here are some suggestions one knucklehead published last year in a desperate effort to be funny:
The Pro Bowl can be used to promote the sport’s history by devoting each quarter to the reenactment of a particular era. The first quarter represents early football: everyone wears leather helmets, players must play both offense and defense, and participants get a coffee coupon and a firm pat on the back as their symbolic salary and pension. In the second quarter, defenders don spiked gauntlets and gain immunity from prosecution as a salute to 1970s football. The third quarter, a celebration of the 1980s, is a 15-minute work stoppage, during which fans stare at empty Astroturf. The fourth quarter can represent FutureBall, a game in which the rulebook has become so convoluted and self-contradictory that every play is simultaneously a touchdown, a fumble, and an illegal hit, with Mike Pereira explaining how all three rulings are correct with Orwellian efficiency.
That numbskull was me, writing for The New York Times in February, 27 years after I read my first Pro Bowl joke and 28 years after Rubin wrote the last Pro Bowl column that was ever really necessary. Like the Pro Bowl, the Pro Bowl joke has long outlived its usefulness, yet it marches on.
So here’s a threat, promise and vow to fans: When the Pro Bowl stops, we will stop making fun of it.
That’s a win-win situation for players, fans, readers and writers!
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Want to know more about Pro Bowl history, NFL-CFL exhibitions and other arcana? Check out this website by Mark Bolding, which was a major source for parts of this article.