NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell warned players a while back that he was prepared to drop the Pro Bowl if they didn't pick up the level of play. Next thing you know, he'll be threatening to hold his breath.
Instead of calling his bluff, which is what anyone who doesn't get the consolation prize of a week's vacation in Hawaii should have done, they promised to try harder. At the time, it sounded like one of those things kids say just to get their parents off their backs. That seemed even more true this week, when cellar-dwelling Kansas City somehow managed to get five players selected to the AFC squad. That's three more than the number of wins the Chiefs have posted so far this season — when they were supposed to be trying — which raises the question: Will anyone who tunes into the Pro Bowl on Jan. 27 be able to tell the difference?
That's the problem facing every pro sport that stages an all-star game these days: It's tough to tell whether anyone's heart is in it anymore. Most veterans would rather take the days off than whatever cash or exposure it provides, and nearly all of them can afford it. More than two dozen passed on an opportunity to show up for last year's 59-41, do-no-harm win by the AFC over the NFC. By the end of that one, defenders were waving ballcarriers by with the kind of flourishes usually reserved for bullfights. Even a solid company man like Goodell had to admit it was an embarrassment.
"If we cannot accomplish that kind of standard," the commissioner said during a radio interview in October, referring to the league's high-intensity regular season, "I am inclined to not play it. It is really tough to force competition, and after a long season, to ask those guys to go out and play at the same level they played is really tough."
Impossible, though, is more like it.
Because the Super Bowl is played at a neutral site, Goodell can't follow the lead of baseball boss Bud Selig and try to coax players into caring about the outcome by awarding home-field advantage to the winning side. There's nothing to be borrowed from the NBA's version, either, because basketball — unlike football — can be entertaining without anyone actually playing defense, as fans of the Charlotte Bobcats can attest. And there's no reason to even mention the NHL in this context, because nothing that Commissioner Gary Bettman has come up with during his tenure is likely to be worth stealing.
So what should Goodell do?
Exactly what he's doing now: Pretend to be concerned, and leave it at that.
Despite a few head-scratching decisions this year — sticking too long with replacement referees; trying to punish the New Orleans Saints more than Bountygate warranted — Goodell hasn't lost his touch. He's not about to cancel the Pro Bowl. The one lesson that's been reinforced time and again since he took the job five years ago is that there's no such thing as too much NFL — on the tube, online and even when most of the players are on vacation.
Nearly five million people tuned into the league's scouting combine at some point this spring to watch players who hadn't even made the cut lift weights and run around in shorts and T-shirts. And last year's Pro Bowl game, bad as it was, still pulled in better numbers than any of its rivals — an average of 12.5 million viewers, even if most of them were asleep by the end.
So Goodell knew exactly what he was doing when he suggested the NFL might skip the game and instead honor the players selected to the Pro Bowls rosters during a ceremony. All-Star games are popularity contests after all, and the NFL's participants are chosen according to a vote among the league's players, coaches and fans, with each group given equal weight in the process.
But if you've followed the arguments about who was left out, you'll find very little griping between the first two groups — with the possible exception of players who promised the family a week in Hawaii. Instead, it's coming from the same fans who will doze off during the game, but can't for the moment imagine how the Cowboys' Dez Bryant didn't get picked, or how overrated but still popular Green Bay center Jeff Saturday got the nod over linemate Josh Sitton, or why all those Chiefs are hanging around.
So consider this your wake-up call, fans, even if it came a month early.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/JimLitke