JJ Watt, the Houston Texans defensive end, displayed a bloodied finger to the television cameras on Sunday, suggesting that players were really, truly trying in the NFL All-Star game, aka the Pro Bowl. In case Roger Goodell, the commissioner, did not get the message, he said on air, "Hey, Commish, we're playing hard."
In fact, Watt was discrediting this sham of a sports event by illustrating how the treatment of an injured finger interrupts the boredom of the medical staff. In legitimate games, sidelines (sadly) often resemble triage units.
In America, we are mired in the midst of what is normally the Silly Season, when three of the four major leagues -NFL, NBA, NHL - conduct faux competitions within a few weeks of each other. (One blessing from the hockey lockout was the cancellation of this year's passive group skate.)
Baseball's summer game is separated not only by the calendar but by an earnest approach from players. Even so, what once was a circled in red date is no longer must-see. The gathering of stars serves some purpose. Fans relish seeing all of them in one setting.
The problem is, the games themselves, to varying degrees, are enough of a departure from the real deal to almost rise to the level of mockery. The "skills" sideshows that have cropped up around them, such as the NBA's dunk and three-point contests, sometimes turn out just as intense as the main event.
Ranking the All-Star games, from worst to first:
4. Ice hockey is all about hitting. Yet, with the gentlemen's agreement to avoid checking, these scarred, toothless players actually become gentlemen, thus distorting the sport. Worse, slap shots customarily are discharged only if no defender is in the path of the puck.
The outcome is insane results: The last three NHL games have generated 21, 21 and 23 goals.
Attempts to jazz up the game, with rosters determined by the captains' draft, is but a salve on a deep wound. Without physicality, ice hockey becomes figure skating with sticks.
3. The NFL's Pro Bowl has its own ponderous rule book. On offence, a maximum of two receivers, a ban on motion or shifting and intentional grounding allowed. On defence, no blitzing, a limit on pass rushers and only 4-3 alignments. Maybe they should just play touch football.
Warned by Goodell to exert more effort lest the game be discontinued, players did break a sweat, at least on offence. (Score: 62-35.) But how can it be taken seriously when the retiring centre Jeff Saturday snaps for both sides, players provide in-game TV interviews and the referee Ed Hochuli, while announcing a pass interference in the second quarter that represented the first dropped flag, said, "Yes, there are penalties in the Pro Bowl."
2. Because basketball is inherently artistic, more individualised and less injurious than hockey and football, it translates better to the All-Star format. Yet the lowest losing team score over the past three years is 139.
Guarding someone is discouraged. The thrill of a driving slam or an alley-oop in games that matter stems from players slicing through and/or going over the defence. Here, the mantra is, just get out of the way.
1. Pitchers restricted to one or two innings might seem unsettling at MLB's affair, but it allows them to throw all out without fear of adding to eventual arm fatigue. Hitters dig in.
Presto: a fair facsimile of an actual game. In contrast to the others, baseball All-Star scoring has been lower than in the regular season, the last seven games averaging just 6 runs.
In 1970, base runner Pete Rose ploughed into catcher Ray Fosse at the plate, causing a shoulder injury that shortened Fosse's career. Uncalled for in a meaningless game? Perhaps, but something is amiss when the most severe All-Star injuries are handled by a baseball medical crew.
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