If there is a more meaningless or worthless exercise in all of sports than the NFL's Pro Bowl, I have no idea what it is. The selection process is a cross between a beauty pageant and popularity contest. The playing of the game after the season but the week before the Super Bowl guarantees that a significant number of players from the conference championship teams, arguably the best and most deserving honorees, won't participate and will be replaced by players who didn't do enough to get elected to the game on their own merit — assuming you place any faith at all in the process. And the all-stars themselves are so disinterested in the event that almost half have chosen not to participate in recent years, diminishing the game so badly that the league made a new rule this year saying only injured players are allowed to pass on the game. I wonder who the doctors are going to be that force players to go by refusing to validate their injuries?
Participants are selected by a vote of the players, coaches and fans, with each group's choices weighted to count 33.3 percent, and players and coaches are not allowed to vote for players on their own teams. From the jump, clubs like the Packers, 49ers and Patriots aren't allowed to vote for the best players because so many of them are teammates.
There is something much more disturbing than that about the process, though. Fan votes for all-star teams are all about ballot-box stuffing and voting for their favorites, regardless of who's the most deserving. But when it comes to players and coaches, they all get to play three teams twice each year and six other teams from their own conference once, leaving six teams from their conference they don't see at all. Maybe they watch a lot of Sunday- and Monday-night football — although most players I've known don't — but that still gives them rare glimpses of most players. If they can't vote for their own teammates, whom they've actually seen perform, there is no one less qualified to vote than players and coaches.
I'm not going to try to single out or pick on the dozen or more players selected this year who don't deserve it, but certainly I'm not the only one scratching his head over how a Victor Cruz, Marshawn Lynch, Tony Romo, Chris Houston, Aldon Smith, Jordan Gross, Brian Cushing, David Harris, Aaron Hernandez and others aren't Pro Bowlers. Actually I know the answer; the selection process is a joke.
The game itself is played with special rules, including no blitzing, because none of us wants to see any of these players risk injury or take any more vicious hits than they have to. But, by definition, that's not football! This is the one and only area in which baseball, basketball and hockey are simply more fortunate than the NFL in that the length of their seasons allows them to pause in the middle and play a game more people might want to watch because the best part of the season is still ahead. In the NFL, the season is over, a ton of the better players don't show up and, basically, nobody cares. Just because all-star games work in other sports doesn't mean they can work for the NFL.
All of that said, we all know the NFL isn't going to give up the ticket, broadcast and marketing revenue the game generates, so what else can it do?
Why not have a consolation game in Hawaii between the losers of the NFC and AFC championship games the week before the Super Bowl? The NFL can keep its toe in the waters around Hawaii, and we'd have two of the four best teams in the NFL — or at least the seventh- or eighth-best — actually giving us one more quality NFL game. Players on the two participating teams might not have made it to the Super Bowl, but at least the Hawaii trip would reward them beyond the rest of the league, which they've earned. To make sure the game was played for real, the winning team could be given an extra draft choice at the end of each round in April.
I'd actually pay to watch that game, and I'll bet a lot of you would, too. Minimally it'd be real football played by guys who all clearly had earned the right to be there.