The Chicago Bears' Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs, the Philadelphia Eagles' DeSean Jackson, quarterback Carson Palmer, Percy Harvin, Brett Favre, Sidney Rice and Kevin Williams... these are just a few of the big names that won't be attending the 2011 Pro Bowl this year. They're not the only ones who opted out of the NFL's version of the All-star game, and many more are cancellations are expected.
There was a time when the Pro Bowl was a big deal, even if it's never been a particularly big game. When the athletes made a more modest living, an all-expense paid trip to Hawaii was a huge bonus. With salaries and other income sources being what they are now, for most players of Pro Bowl status that trip to the islands to play a meaningless scrimmage looks more like an unnecessary burden. The NFL season is long; for many players it's time spent away from their families, away from other business enterprises. Another week in a hotel, at the end of a lost campaign towards the Super Bowl, doesn't hold the attraction it once did.
And by all indications, the NFL season is only getting longer. The league and the owners are pushing hard for an 18 game schedule. Even if they take those two extra games out of the current four pre-season games, that's a grind. Most starters don't play much in pre-season, and certainly not at the intensity of regular season play.
Almost any player can reasonably claim injury at this late date. Certainly every starter can offer a collection of bumps, bruises, scrapes and sores after four months of play.
For most payers who could be considered 'All-Stars', the risk vs. reward metric just doesn't add up. Neither does the effort. It's like being asked by your employer to work on your day off for no pay, but you can have anything you want out of the vending machines. It's just not worth the time or energy.
There's a very small group who make up the exception to the rule: younger players drafted in the late rounds, guys who didn't sign seven figure contracts but performed at a very high level. And if we're being realistic, those players are usually named to the Pro Bowl squads after the bigger stars have declined.
All that is aside from some of the longtime criticisms the selection process has created. Fan voting counts for 1/3 of the balloting, player voting another 1/3, and finally the coaches for the the final third. It's been said the voting favors teams in large markets as well as players who are fan favorites, who may not have had seasons that merit the 'honor'. And of course, fan voting is always much, much higher than fan viewership will be. People want their favorites to be considered among the league's best, but that doesn't mean they want to spend three-plus hours, waiting for a glimpse of those players to scrimmage for a couple of series.
Brett Favre, overhyped all year in his worst season as a pro, was named to the NFC team. And he still turned it down.
The NFL doesn't really know what to do with this game anymore. Last year, they moved it from it's usual tropical paradise in the islands to Florida, the site of the Super Bowl. That only served to make the appeal that much less for players. And of course it surrounded them in the excitement and pageantry of the Super Bowl, reminding them there was a better game to be played, that they didn't qualify for.
Which brings up the fact that there are always going to be two teams whose players won't be participating in the Pro Bowl: the Super Bowl opponents. The hype machine, turned up to eleven for the Super Bowl and the players in it, tends to drown out the attention the Pro Bowl gets. It's the poor relation of the Big Game.
The Pro Bowl does generate about 30 million dollars to the local economy, and it does attract some fans who use the opportunity to double as tourists. Maybe they should just vote for the NFL All-Stars, send them a plaque and a contribution to a favorite charity, and just have a rookie game: NFC Rookies vs. AFC Rookies, a game between players who are young enough to appreciate the accolades and the perks, and who are still resilient enough to not mind playing one more game. You could even include second year guys, I don't care.
Does anyone else?