Double Coverage: Pro Bowl alive and ... well

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has revived debate over the Pro Bowl and its worthiness. Is he genuinely concerned for the quality of the game? Or are there more sinister motives? And should the game go on? NFC West blogger Mike Sando and NFC East counterpart Dan Graziano pick up the discussion.

Sando: Dan, I know what you're going to say. The Pro Bowl is one of our cherished American institutions. Fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, have for generations set aside one Sunday each February to watch what is, by all accounts, a celebration unlike any other. When that NFL offseason calendar finally comes out via emailed news release and we know for certain the Pro Bowl date, well --

Graziano: You know, Mike, when I told you I thought you should get the first word on this, I expected you to make your case for why it should go. I'm still waiting. The Pro Bowl's not hurting anyone. The players love going. It gets good TV ratings. No one has to watch it if they don't want to watch it. I don't understand what's so offensive about it that it has to be abolished. So some guys who have been beating each other's brains out for half a year get to kick it in Hawaii for a week and play flag football. Why should that bother anyone?

Sando: They'll either cancel it now or after a quarterback suffers a freak injury. Why risk losing one of the average or slightly above-average quarterbacks named to the game as a replacement? And if one of the truly elite quarterbacks gets hurt, imagine the outrage. In the immortal words of Ricky Watters, "For who? For what?"

Graziano: I guess, but what was the last major Pro Bowl-related injury? My issue with it is this: If they want to scrap the game, fine. I don't watch it and won't miss it. I just don't want Roger Goodell to expect me to buy that the quality of the on-field product is the reason for doing it. This is the same league that fed us a month's worth of replacement officials because it wanted to bust the officials' union, and killed the 2011 offseason because it wanted to bust the players' union. I don't think the quality of the on-field product is ever the NFL's chief motivation for its actions, and I don't buy it now. This is a bargaining chip -- a means of trying to get something out of the players, who want to keep the game. The game drew 12.5 million viewers this year, and the league's broadcast partners certainly aren't looking to get rid of it. It's impossible for me to believe they would scrap a ratings winner (more viewers than the Major League Baseball All-Star Game) just because they don't think guys hit hard enough in it. Something's fishy.

Sando: Wait, the game is profitable and doing well in the ratings, and the commissioner wants to scrap it as a bargaining chip? Why give up sure money for potential money?

Graziano: So you're taking him at his word? You don't think he has any ulterior motive for doing this? You don't think he's still trying to get that 18-game schedule, and that he sees this as a potential avenue for getting something he wants by holding hostage something the players want? Am I just a conspiracy theorist?

Sando: Nope, wouldn't take him at his word. Goodell definitely wants that 18-game schedule. The commissioner has an agenda. Lots of people do. Some of the attorneys and players suing the league have agendas, too. It's a little incongruous for players and their union to promote player safety while lobbying to uphold a game utterly lacking in consequence. If the commissioner had made keeping the Pro Bowl a huge priority, the union probably would have argued against it by now. We all agree the game isn't very good. The fact that some people would rather watch it than watch nothing isn't much of a defense.

Graziano: No, but it is a reason to think the league would want to keep it, all else being equal. Which is why I'm suspicious there is more to this than just "the game isn't very good, so there's no reason to keep having it." Heck, the same could be said for the Jacksonville Jaguars, but Goodell's not calling for them to be abolished.

Sando: So, the Pro Bowl is basically the Jacksonville Jaguars of pro all-star games. Keep it! Seriously, Dan, I think players should still earn Pro Bowl honors. But with so many truly elite players opting out of the game or missing it because of postseason obligations, the league has devalued the game further. Twenty-four players went to the Pro Bowl last season as replacements for Super Bowl participants and/or injured players.

Graziano: Which is the real reason the league sees it as a worthwhile target -- it can help them extract something they want from the players. Again, I couldn't care less if they get rid of the game or not. My problem is that he's being obviously disingenuous about his reasons for doing so, telling the public, "You don't like this thing anyway, right?" and forcing the players to fight for something no one else likes just because it's pleasant and profitable for them. It's business, I get it. But the way the NFL does business gets shadier and shadier all the time. The Pro Bowl isn't in trouble because it's hurting anybody. It's in trouble because putting it there can help NFL owners get something they want.

Sando: I've now spent more time writing about the Pro Bowl than either one of us has probably spent watching one. A-ha! That's what Goodell wanted all along, people talking about his product. Looks like it worked. No more.