For many years, the Pro Bowl officiating assignment was a gift for retiring officials or a consolation prize for officials who just missed a playoff assignment.
Now, with a re-imagined Pro Bowl — more of a skills competition than an actual game — there is no longer a need for NFL officials to work the game.
Pro Bowl used to be a retirement gift
For many seasons the NFL Pro Bowl was in Los Angeles and featured all star players from the Eastern Division and Western Divisions; officials on the west coast worked the game for the most part. A young field judge named Jim Tunney worked the 1960-1965 Pro Bowls in the LA Coliseum. In his book Impartial Judgement, Tunney said that was more of a result of few Los Angeles-centric field judges who were in the NFL’s good graces.
After the AFL and NFL merged in 1970, the AFC and the NFC all-stars played each other. For the first several years, the game was held at an NFL stadium that wasn’t hosting the Super Bowl. From 1979-2015 all but two Pro Bowls were held at Aloha Stadium in Hawaii (the other two were held in Miami and Phoenix). Many retiring NFL officials would get the Pro Bowl assignment in Hawaii. Several championship-level officials like Lou Palazzi, Pat Harder, Frank Sinkovitz, Tony Veteri, Sr., Stan Javie, Bill O’Brien, Dale Orem and Tom Kelleher worked their last game in Aloha Stadium. Quite the retirement gift! In fact, one time I reached out to a retired official in early March, and he was still in Hawaii from the Pro Bowl on an extended vacation.
Going into the 21st Century, the NFL continued to assign the Pro Bowl to retiring officials; however the Pro Bowl assignment wasn’t guaranteed to a retiring official.
Other times, the NFL assigned the Pro Bowl to a middle-of-the-pack official who maybe didn’t quite make the grade or was tied around the cut line for a playoff game. Sometimes, an official that showed improvement might go to Honolulu rather than a wild card in Green Bay. In their first seasons as referees, Dick Hantak and Pete Morelli were not eligible to work a playoff game. Yet, they must have done something good that season as the NFL assigned both to the Pro Bowl in Hawaii after their rookie campaign as a referee.
In some cases, an assignment to Hawaii was a nice consolation prize to an official who may have just missed the grade for a playoff. While not getting a playoff game might have stung, a trip to Hawaii could be some good healing balm.
An exhibition game turns into an unwatchable game
Let’s be honest, the Pro Bowl was never a highly competitive game. Not many all-star games are. NFL players had just spent several months putting their bodies through a grueling season. No one wanted to throw their bodies around for an exhibition game.
Up until the last few years, Pro Bowls featured the AFC versus the NFC. There were still hard feelings between the two leagues and the Pro Bowl meant something in the early 1970s. But, by the 1980s many of those players had retired and free agency blurred the old AFL-NFL lines. In short, it didn’t mean as much to the players.
For many years the Pro Bowl was one week after the Super Bowl. Many times the Super Bowl players showed up at the Pro Bowl. Starting in 2015, the NFL played the Pro Bowl the week before the Super Bowl. So, those playing in the Super Bowl didn’t play.
The NFL also revised rules for the Pro Bowl. It got to a point where blitzes weren’t allowed, and other hard-hitting aspects of the game were against the rules. With worries about concussions, the players didn’t hit hard and ball carriers went down quickly. Many fans criticized the game for poor-quality of play and were no longer interested to show up or watch on TV to the point where the 2022 Pro Bowl devolved into basic two-hand touch and was panned by fans and the hot-take artists.
No need for officials now
I don’t know how talks went (or if there were any talks) between the NFL and the officials union about the re-imagined Pro Bowl. But let’s face it: who wants to officiate dodge ball or a flag football? After a long season, I’m sure the officials would rather spend the time at home instead of being a prop in a skills competition.
With the loss of the Pro Bowl, zebra-watchers have one less tea leaf to read. The Pro Bowl used to give us an insight into what officials just missed the grade cutoff for the playoffs and what officials might be retiring. But no more.
While officiating fans might miss reading the above tea leaves, do we really miss the Pro Bowl, especially the Pro Bowl as it was in its last few years?