How to Fix the Pro Bowl

January 23, 2014; Honolulu, HI, USA; Team Sanders alumni captain Deion Sanders looks at his cell phone during practice for the 2014 Pro Bowl at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Much like the age-old question concerning whether a falling tree makes a sound when no one is there to hear it, if NFL Hall of Famers Deion Sanders and Jerry Rice selected players for the Pro Bowl without anyone really knowing or caring about it, then was there ever even a draft in the first place?

When I first heard about the NFL setting aside its tired Pro Bowl model—best described as “NFC stars versus AFC stars play in meaningless game where no one wants to get hurt”—in favor of a draft, I was ecstatic!  Inside my head, I immediately began thinking about how awesome it will be for a bunch of NFL players previously selected to participate in the Pro Bowl at large to arrive at a football stadium a few hours before the game to pick sides.  Touch football.  Schoolyard style.  Shirts versus skins.  The two best guys pick teams.  But sadly, this is not how the Pro Bowl draft played itself out.

Instead, we got two ill-equipped faux general managers in Rice and Sanders selecting players in a seemingly arbitrary fashion days in advance of the Pro Bowl itself.  I cannot stress ill-equipped and arbitrary enough.  Seriously Jerry, I know you are the greatest wide receiver of all time, but why are you burning your second draft selection on Robert Quinn over an offensive weapon?  Don’t get me wrong: Robert Quinn is an incredible defensive end, but his skill set is at best marginalized and at worst irrelevant in the Pro Bowl.  If Quinn violently sacks an opposing quarterback in this exhibition game, the NFL just might make him leave the stadium in handcuffs.

This 2014 variant of the Pro Bowl is nothing but a gimmick.  In fairness, my dream “just pick teams and play” scenario would also be a gimmick, but at least it would be a fun one.  The NFL can tinker with its Pro Bowl rules and drafting concepts all it wants, but at the end of the day, eliminating NFC versus AFC teams and allowing cover 2 and press coverage still makes for a trivial football game played between grown men in full pads who are not allowed to realistically hit one another.  No one wants to watch that.

It’s not as if what fans want out of all star games is a mystery.  For Major League Baseball, fans want to see the best hitters hit the baseball really far and for the best pitchers attempt to embarrass the best hitters.  During the NBA All Star Game, fans want to see a glorified And 1 Mixtape Tour game featuring players more talented and athletic than the likes of The Professor, Hot Sauce, and the late Escalade.  Fans of the NHL’s all star game first and foremost want the game to be played, marketed, and featured on national television, but apart from that, they want a high scoring, whimsical and artistic game played on open ice.  And NFL fans are not stupid.  We watch players snap appendages in two and fall victim to irreversible brain damage on an weekly basis.  Due quite literally to human resources concerns, we know that the Pro Bowl can’t be this aggressive, hyper-violent contest resembling an archetypal Pittsburgh Steelers versus Baltimore Ravens game.  That is why all an NFL fan wants to see out of the Pro Bowl is the best players in the world play in the most incredible game of two hand touch, five Mississippi Razzle Dazzle football the world has ever seen.  Oh, and it would be awesome if the teams could just be chosen right before the game—similar to how pickup football is played anywhere that football is a “thing.”

Maybe the players won’t agree to it.  Maybe the linemen wouldn’t  happy with picking up their contractual Pro Bowl bonuses but not getting a chance to play in the game [because who is going to roll the dice with a Vince Wilfork running out routes?].  Or maybe the NFL just hasn’t thought of the appeal of a good old fashioned two hand touch park style football game featuring pros.  Whatever the case might be, the status quo Pro Bowl today is just not sustainable, because it just is not interesting.

No one wants to see professional football players wearing pads but unsure if hitting is allowed or frowned upon; calling plays but not certain plays that the NFL has deemed illegal for the Pro Bowl; and playing a regulation football game but just not the allegedly dangerous parts, like special teams.  The Pro Bowl is a game between a bunch of professional football players feigning the game of football.  And this needs to be remedied.  Forget about my desire for Pro Bowl caliber professional football players playing a game of exhibition two hand touch; much like a hypothetical NBA one on one or three on three tournament, it probably will never happen.  Let’s instead focus on a Pro Bowl change that can and should happen.

One of the most powerful and important concepts in American law and governance is the notion that the fifty states should function as “laboratories of democracy.”  As United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said, a “state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.”  In layman’s terms, Brandeis explained that the federal government could effectively utilize the states as micro-experiments for systems that, if proven effective locally, could be successfully applied nationally.  Or in other words, don’t try to institute a new global scheme unless you know that it works at a smaller scale.

I’ve always been intrigued at the potential for professional sports leagues to apply the laboratories of democracy ideology.  And the NBA, under the brilliant leadership of David Stern, has historically done just that.  In 2010, the NBA started thinking about its D-league as not just a means of player development, but also rule development.  The NBA required all D-League games to feature a three minute overtime period as opposed to the standard five minutes.  The NBA also implemented the FIBA goaltending rules into D-League play—allowing defensive players to smack the basketball off of the rim.  Then in 2013, the NBA reduced the number of team timeouts in the D-League from eight to seven, and disallowed a defending team to call time out during an inbounds play if the offensive team just called a time out.  By all accounts, the NBA’s decision to treat its D-League as an experiment in rules development has been a worthwhile endeavor.  Maybe it’s time for Roger Goodell and the NFL to take notice.

Admittedly, the National Football League is at a laboratories of democracy disadvantage. While the NBA is in control of the D-League, the NFL’s minor league is the wholly autonomous NCAA, and due to amateurism concerns, Roger Goodell will almost assuredly not be impacting collegiate football rules.  With college football out of the realm of possibility, why not turn the Pro Bowl into the NFL’s new laboratory of democracy?

There is just no denying the NFL’s concussion problem.  Given our continued understanding of football causing various traumatic brain injuries, the NFL will eventually be forced to make tough changes to how the game is played.  Rather than simply worrying about that day when it comes and continuing to bask in multi-billion dollar revenues, the NFL should use the Pro Bowl as its testing ground for newer, safer rules.  Whether it be requiring safeties to lime up within seven yards of the line of scrimmage, giving the offense an additional designated blocker, or some other rule variant with safety in mind, it should be tested during the Pro Bowl.

I won’t be watching Team Deion take on Team Jerry this weekend.  But if this weekend’s Pro Bowl featured rules designed to make football a safer game forever as opposed to a safer game just for one weekend in Hawaii right before the Super Bowl—then Roger Goodell would have my attention.

Topics: NFL, Pro Bowl

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