Gutman: Pro Bowl lacks top players

All-star games are fantastic for the fans. The upcoming NBA All-Star Game provides players an opportunity to take a few days off from the game while LeBron James and Kobe Bryant trade high-flying dunks. What makes NBA All-Star weekend even better is the skills competition, with the dunk contest and three-point shooting contest (Jason Kapono all the way).

The NFL Pro Bowl this Sunday, however, lacks the two most important components of a true all-star weekend: top players and a skills contest. With the New Orleans Saints and Indianapolis Colts heading to the Super Bowl the week after the Pro Bowl, the game’s two top quarterbacks will be missing this weekend. Other big-time players, like Minnesota Vikings kick returner Percy Harvin, Chicago Bears defensive back Charles Tillman and, most notably, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady are injured (or claiming they are injured) and skipping the game.

In fact, of the six quarterbacks originally voted into the Pro Bowl, Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers is the only one participating. And why should players participate? They don’t even get a trip to Hawaii anymore since the game is being played in Miami.

The next best guys from each league are still good players, don’t get me wrong. But when the 11th best starting quarterback makes the all-star game (he’s not in the top third of the 30 NFL starters), something is wrong. The top players aren’t taking part in the game, and it is undermining the event’s legitimacy.

The Pro Bowl needs a makeover more badly than Snooki from Jersey Shore.

Perhaps the previous season’s All-Pros should play the game during the preseason the next year, so they will all be healthy and get a chance to play against top competition as they work their way into the new season.

Maybe the game should be turned into a weekend, which would include a skills competition. Who wouldn’t want to see Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers light up a radar gun to see who can throw harder? Or Drew Brees and Peyton Manning throw footballs into absurdly small targets? Or a speed competition between Willie Parker and Chris Johnson? The possibilities are endless.

Players might find the game more memorable and a greater opportunity if they only played the game every other year. It seems like a certainty that the NHL skipping its All-Star weekend this year due to the Olympics will make players eager to participate in next year’s festivities, rather than looking for an excuse to avoid them.

The MLB All-Star game counts … at least according to the league. And it features the Home Run Derby, one of sport’s true spectacles. The NBA All-Star weekend is perhaps the most enjoyable of the bunch. And the NHL’s version is entertaining and features the game’s heavy hitters at the very least.

The Pro Bowl sucks. Now that it’s the week before the Super Bowl, players from the two best teams or those still “injured” from games over the past couple weeks decide not to play. An all-star weekend without fan-friendly festivities or true all stars is nothing more than an over-hyped sham.

The NFL needs to realize that its tradition doesn’t mean anything when it’s not backed up by a quality product. It can’t continue to sell an all-star game without the all-stars, and their recent decisions have only exacerbated the game’s woes. There is as much depth in the Pro Bowl as in Paris Hilton, and as much buzz around it as your average Kansas City Royals baseball game. The Pro Bowl is dead. It will get about as many viewers as a hair-gelling contest between The Situation and Pauly D.

Actually, that would be a legitimate competition featuring two heavyweights of their “sport.” Maybe MTV should run a cheap spinoff of “Jersey Shore” opposite the Pro Bowl.

The stakes would be higher and people might actually watch.

If I’m going to watch one football game this weekend, it’ll be the Senior Bowl on Saturday. At least it succeeds in drawing top talent.

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