Litke: Set your DVR for Pro Bowl. Now. Seriously

By By Jim Litke / Associated Press Sports Columnist

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, since

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@ap.org and follow him

at Twitter.com/JimLitke.