Let's stop saving the Pro Bowl

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL is entirely too violent and too self-important for an all-star game that works the way all-star games are supposed to. So maybe stop trying to make the Pro Bowl be that?

It is a feeling so contemporary and new that there isn't quite a word for it yet, but citizens of the internet know it on sight. This is the sudden, sharp pang, not so much sympathetic as a reflexive wince, that comes with witnessing a botched moment of Attempted Virality.

For its basic uncanniness, it's tempting to draw a parallel to spotting a dog walking on its hind legs, but YouTube has made that seem more or less normal and social media #strat substitutes flubby, cynical artificiality for the supremely endearing haplessness unique to dogs. Watching a #hashtag wipe out, or seeing a corporate Twitter account try to do people things, is both broadly funny -- because of the inevitable falling-down-the-stairs nope-ness of a corporate mascot making a Gangnam Style joke -- and kind of sad. The failure is the funny part; the attempt is the sad part. It's hard to know where to fit the NFL's attempt to social media-fy the Pro Bowl fits on this spectrum, but it's clearly on the continuum.

The thing I keep coming back to is Homer Simpson's painful "Mr. Plow" rap, except laid over $250,000 of Timbaland production and laced with one of those 1990's-style Bad Boy videos where everyone is wearing mink coats on speedboats for some reason. A bad idea does not necessarily look better when it's bedazzled with actual diamonds and platinum-plated hashtags. It just looks like a bad idea with a bunch of expensive things stuck to it. And the NFL's attempt to make the Pro Bowl into a capital-E Event is an idea that's both bad and doomed.

Which is not to say that there isn't something funny about it. The NFL's self-presentation, despite occasional detours into weepy patriotism and screaming tumid hornball idiocy, only goes in one direction in one fairly narrow lane. And while there's something ridiculous -- and intermittently poisonous and actually abhorrent -- about the league's presentation of itself as a militarized corporation for men, there's also something dreary and constraining about it. NFL is either incapable of or unwilling to discuss its games or itself except in terms and tones of progressively grandiose significance, and so it is generally discussed that way.

The Shield is of course free to polish and present its brand truths however it sees fit; the profits suggest that the strategy of humping gravely away at the supreme significance of everything to do with the NFL does appeal to a great many people. The constraining aspect of it, though, is how thoroughly this approach cuts off interesting conversation about the sport. Every game means everything, every week and forever, which leaves little room for fun or nuance or anything but the same old simultaneously silly and dead-serious un-debates over various rhetorical points. Thousands of good men die on this battlefield each week, trying to take or re-take some strategically significant hill, upon which they can plant a flag reading "[SOME QUARTERBACK] IS ELITE." It is their honor to serve, and lord knows the NFL has figured out how to make money off it. But it is, often, pretty laughable and awfully hard to take.

The idea of this extreme significance, and the NFL's characteristic insistence on high stakes, works especially poorly for the Pro Bowl. All all-star games are, by their nature, kind of goofy; they are exhibitions, with nothing much at stake, and exist primarily to showcase the sport's best players playing the sport they're best at. The all-star games that understand and embrace this the most wholeheartedly -- most notably the NBA's ragged, good-natured pickup run of an All-Star Game -- also happen to be the ones that work the best.

Baseball's inexplicable and idiotic attempt to improve its All-Star Game by having its outcome decide home-field advantage in the World Series is inexplicable and idiotic both because an exhibition shouldn't have that sort of significance, and because it fundamentally misunderstands the game's ostensible problem. It seeks to make the fundamentally goofy thing that is an all-star game more significant, when the only real way to improve it -- and, more to the point, give fans a reason to watch -- would be to make it more fun. If there's a problem at all, here, it's that ragged pickup baseball is not as fun to watch as ragged pickup basketball, and decidedly not that the All-Star Game is too raggedy or unserious. The bigger problem would be that fun is more difficult to manage or promote than seriousness and significance. It's more unpredictable and more appealing, too. That is, to everyone but those charged with managing and promoting it.

Embracing that element of fun would seem to be the way to go with the Pro Bowl, but the NFL operates exclusively in the language of significance, big all-caps statements about PRIDE and MEANING. That the NFL is trying to get fans to feel some type of way -- or at least favorite and retweet -- about #TeamRice or #TeamSanders gives us that sort of Mr. Plow Rap feeling because the very attempt is so transparently clueless and so futile. But there's a subtler bummer running through it -- the NFL doesn't trust football-the-game as much as it trusts NFL-the-brand, and so it falls back on its reflexive tendency to go flying over-the-top in a blaze of Blue Angel flyovers and purposeful NFL Films horns.

If the NFL decided that the Pro Bowl should be played like a pickup football game -- with a keg on the sidelines, maybe, and players wearing no equipment at all, calling their own penalties and playing the sort of goonish tackle or two-hand-touch people play in parks -- it would probably be a blast to watch. Football is fun, after all, and it's more fun when the best football players are playing it. But to consider that would require the NFL to think and act in a way that it just cannot do. The NFL, all things considered, is just more comfortable sticking with the hashtags and the booming, laughably misplaced pomp. It's not going to work, sure, but it's just easier to apply all that big dumb significance on an exhibition that, at bottom, just wants to have fun.

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