NFL discontinues Pro Bowl game

The NFL announced Monday some long-expected changes to the Pro Bowl, including changing the non-competitive Sunday football game to a flag football competition between teams from the AFC and NFC. The game, which will take place Feb. 5 -- a week before Super Bowl LVII -- is seeing its biggest overhaul after years of tweaks.

The league worked in the offseason to improve the Pro Bowl, talking with players and executives on how it can make the game and week more exciting. Flag football has been a key part of the league's global expansion, making its debut at The World Games this past summer with an eye on eventually becoming an Olympic sport in years to come.

The Pro Bowl has taken different forms in recent years as the NFL has tried to figure out ways to re-imagine it. For three Pro Bowls beginning in 2014, the NFL abandoned the AFC vs. NFC format and instead held a fantasy draft captained by Pro Football Hall of Famers like Jerry Rice, Michael Irvin, Cris Carter and Deion Sanders.

The event has also been a training ground for potential rules changes. Last year the league introduced the "spot-and-choose" method to start halves and featured a shorter play clock.

This year's Pro Bowl week, which is now branded as The Pro Bowl Games, will still feature skills competitions for the star players.

Why play anything if the NFL isn’t going to play an NFL game? Just make the Pro Bowl teams the equivalent of the collegiate All-American rosters — an honorific, a trophy or plaque to hang on one’s wall and view fondly at the end of a career. That would avoid the silliness of the actual Pro Bowl game and avoid the safety issues that the NFL won’t fully concede exist in its regular games as well.

The answer to that question is money, of course. The league still makes a lot of money on the Pro Bowl, and so do the players. They want to cash in on fan interest any way possible, and why not? If fans want to see “players showcasing their football and non-football skills in challenges over several days,” it would be foolish to miss that kind of financial opportunity. This is sounding more like the old “Battle of the Network Stars” program rather than anything connected to the massively popular NFL experience, but maybe they can make that work.

The concussion-concession to flags, however, may be one concession too many. The league will now protect its elite players by removing most of the contact from the contact sport while selling it as a legit pro-football competition experience. How long will it take before people connect the dots and see this as a tacit admission of the dangers of tackle football? That threatens to either dilute interest in the Pro Bowl or incentivize demand for both professional and collegiate football to adopt that form of the game for safety purposes, too.

It might not happen in the first year or even the fifth year, but plenty of people are already uneasy over the consequences of the pounding players take in the NFL especially. If the flag-football form of the Pro Bowl succeeds at all, the NFL may end up talking itself out of the model that turned it into arguably the most popular pro sport in America.

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