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NFL Pro Bowl: Can Boosting Players' Motivation Help Save It?

I realize the Pro Bowl is old news by now, if that isn't an oxymoron. But the problem with things that happen on an infrequent basis and have proven to be unsatisfactory is that everybody complains at the time, but nobody does anything about it until the next one is imminent and it is too late to do anything differently. So I believe the time to explore ideas about how to fix the Pro Bowl is now.

When I was a kid, my mom got Good Housekeeping magazine. Despite the title it wasn't entirely about housekeeping by any means, but it was pretty much about girl stuff. One of the columns that I enjoyed was "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" A couple whose marriage was on the rocks would meet with a pair of counselors. The counselors talked to each person alone, broke down what their issues were, and then counseled with the two together to figure out how the issues could be resolved in a manner that was fair to both parties.

I would say the compact between football fans and players in re the Pro Bowl has definitely hit a rough patch, and the Pro Bowl might not weather the storm. So let's step back for a moment and try to look at the situation from both sides, a la the Good Housekeeping column. What are the issues, and are the conflicting needs reconcilable, or should we all just forget about it?

From the fan side, the Pro Bowl has deteriorated to the point where it isn't worth watching, or so many fans say. You could actually hear the fans booing in sufficient numbers that it was obvious on the telecast during this year's game.

Although the younger players that got on the field later in the game were putting some energy and effort into it, this wasn't really true earlier on. At the beginning of the game the linemen might just as well have been playing "Rock, Paper, Scissors" for all the good they were doing. A few of them made the effort to at least make it somewhat entertaining, but mostly they were at best going through the motions.

The fans, I believe, feel that they have invested money, energy, and, for lack of a better word, love in the players for their team, and they want to see a bit of gratitude, in the form of some genuine effort being expended. Even the youngest players are probably making more money in a year than the vast majority of their fans make in five to ten years. And they are making it for just playing football. What's the problem?

The players, on the other hand, have just spent half of the previous year being mauled, pummeled, and beaten up on an almost daily basis. And that is just by their coaches. They also have to play other teams, who are filled with men who, at least temporarily, desire to do them harm at some level or other.

They work out daily, when many other people are still in bed. There is probably never a moment when significant portions of their body don't hurt, and they may have to play with injuries that would keep most people home on their couch.

And if all that wasn't bad enough, they are seeing more and more evidence that they aren't likely to have a comfortable life after football. Between the knees that don't work or the arthritis that may develop early in life and the looming spectre of significant brain damage, in their heart they know that there is a major price to pay for their career.

And yes, if they are lucky they'll have made a lot of money. But all of them know players who managed their money poorly or were ripped off by dishonest friends or family members or advisors and ended up with nothing to show for their career except the physical damage they sustained. They realize, if they allow themselves to see it, that the cushy life-style to which they've become accustomed isn't likely to be possible after football unless they've been wiser than most with their money.

So from their standpoint, why would they risk further pain, long-term health consequences, or even a career-ending injury in a meaningless game? The stakes just don't merit it.

The counselor trying to fix this relationship is the NFL. There is nothing the NFL likes less than a large group of seriously unhappy fans. But the needs and aims of the two parties in the dispute seem irreconcilable. The fans want an exciting football game, and the players don't want to get hurt. Can this game be saved?

For what it's worth, here's my take. From the fan side, I think that there are somewhat unrealistic expectations. The fans want to come home from work to see the players in a little frilly apron, whomping up a hot, home-cooked meal in an immaculate house (to use a thoroughly early-60s illustration.) The players, on the other hand, aren't really acknowledging the fans have a legitimate beef. They feel like they have been whomping up the home cooking for months on end with no relief, and if they want to have a day where they kick off the high heels and watch a soap opera or two, that is perfectly reasonable. Just because the fans are bringing home the bacon doesn't mean that the players don't have needs, too.

Well, that was awkward. But hopefully you see the point. So what are the options, given this set of conflicting aims and needs?

One possibility, which was recently put forth by Roger Goodell, is to eliminate the Pro Bowl altogether. Let's just admit that it isn't salvageable and move on with our lives.

But surely it's worth exploring some other possibilities before throwing in the towel. Perhaps the problem is that the motivation for the players is insufficient to expect them to give their best effort—or even a reasonable one. What is their motivation, anyhow?

I have to say that when I found out that the motivation for the winning team of the Pro Bowl was that a) their conference gets home-field status for the next year's Super Bowl, and b) that they get a $50,000 check instead of a $25,000 one, I was astonished. The whole point of incentives is lost if the value of the incentives is minimal. Let's think about this from the players' standpoint for a moment.

First, the whole home-field thing. Who cares, really? Even if you currently play for a team that might be expected to have a chance to compete in the next Super Bowl, what does home-field advantage get you? Maybe the locker rooms are nicer. You couldn't care less what color jersey you're wearing. The chances of you actually being at your home stadium are pretty remote. I suppose it might be a bit embarrassing to be the away team at your own stadium, but I expect that the vast majority of the players can live with that possibility. Maybe the players actually feel a huge sense of conference pride, but probably not. If your AFC team cuts you after the Pro Bowl is over, are you going to refuse to sign with another team because they belong to the NFC?

Then there's the money. For the great majority of football fans, $25,000 is a significant sum of money. I would venture to guess that for most of the players in the Pro Bowl $25,000 is not that big a deal. Look at it this way. James Harrison restructured his contract for the 2011 season, making his base salary $1.25 million. That's hardly top money for a linebacker. For example, Elvis Dumervil was paid a $14,000,000 salary in 2011. (Admittedly, he is the highest-paid OLB.)

James Harrison's salary breaks down to about $78,000 per game during the season, and of course playoff games are extra. So the extra money to win the Pro Bowl is less than 1/3 of a regular game salary, or about 2% of his season pay, before you even consider bonuses or extra money for playoff games. For purposes of comparison, for the average worker (2011 average annual salary being calculated as around $41,500) that is $830. Nice to have, but not worth putting yourself in a position where you might not be able to work at your current job ever again, and with no guarantee that you can find income to replace that yearly $41,500. If you already know you're getting $830, you're not likely to knock yourself out and put yourself at risk for an extra $830.

So let's look at some ways to provide incentives for the players that might actually be motivational. The money part is easier. You shouldn't get paid unless your team wins. $0 for the players in the losing conference, $75,000 for the players in the winning conference. $75,000 is still only about a half a percent of Elvis Dumervil's income, but for the majority of the players it starts to look more like real money. As for the QBs, they are all crazy competitors, so you don't have to worry about an incentive for them.

The conference part is harder, but there should surely be something that affects all the players in a conference that would be more of a motivation than who gets to wear their home uniforms in the Super Bowl. Perhaps during out-of-conference games for the following season, instead of a coin toss, the team from the winning conference gets to say whether they want the ball or not. Surely there is something sufficiently worthwhile that it would provide the motivation to make the Pro Bowl players actually want to win.

But perhaps I'm approaching this from the wrong end. Perhaps the problem isn't the players but the fan expectation that the Pro Bowl resemble an ordinary football game. Perhaps the best fix would be to make it so very different that there could be no danger of mistaking it for NFL football. After brainstorming with my son, here are some ideas.

The whole issue with the Pro Bowl is that it should be reasonably safe for the players and yet still entertaining for the audience. Football is, after all, entertainment, although there is a tendency by the NFL to try to pitch it as something much more significant than that. So if you want the game to be entertaining, set it up in a way that facilitates that, and reward those who contribute to it the most.

Eliminate helmets and pads. Each player would be required to wear the jersey of their team, and to be sufficiently covered otherwise, shall we say, but beyond that the sky's the limit. Completely relax the usual rules. Non-protective hats, non-regulation shoes that aren't actually unsafe, "flair," you name it. The NFL took one step in that direction this year by not only allowing tweeting during the game but actually setting up tweeting stations and encouraging it.

Have a second set of referees on the field that award style points, or give style demerits. Bring them in from Project Runway or American Idol or some such. Allow the world at large to contribute to the voting for said style points via tweets or emails during the game.

This would, of course, begin with the uniforms, but high-stepping, creative ways to get the ball downfield, choreographed touchdown celebrations (or even first down celebrations,) and other things that take this game out of the lock-step conformity that the NFL attempts to impose during the rest of the year could all garner major style points. A sort of sporting Feast of Fools, you might say. A good example in the game we just watched was the pair of defensive linemen that exchanged places in the lineup by one of them somersaulting to the new location. I gave that major style points.

As for the actual game, let the QBs pick teams for a 5-on-5, with all players playing both sides of the field. Have several games going on at once, with a montage-style television screen. The thought of, say, Casey Hampton being forced to play WR is pretty awesome. Imagine the suspense. Can he actually catch anything? If he does, can he actually run more than five yards? That's high drama right there. It could be tournament-style, with a winner-takes-all cash prize.

In fact, take all the money that currently goes to paying the players, and divide it in half. After all, the players are already getting a free Hawaiian vacation for themselves and their families. One half of the pot would be the prize for the tournament winners, and the other half would be divided between a number of style prizes. These prizes might not be awarded a lot of money, but I suspect they would be sought after and very prestigious, at least among the players that weren't completely embarrassed by the whole idea. I'm quite sure that Antonio Brown, for instance, would be working his hardest to obtain as many prizes as possible.

But, you may protest, this isn't football anymore. Well, the Pro Bowl game is never going to be a real football game anyhow. So why not make it into an opportunity for the players to reveal a bit of their real personality?

Well, that's all I've got. Feel free to tell me how dumb these ideas are, as long as you come up with something better, or at least something besides "The Pro Bowl sucks, get rid of it." So here we go, Steeler Nation! Let's see if this marriage can be saved.