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."