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In midst of Super Bowl spectacle, the wreckage of human lives

Imagine if at the Phillip Morris annual stockholders meeting, they paraded around cancer victims who told their stories of facing death?

Or at the Tobacco Expo in Las Vegas, oxygen tank manufacturers touting their latest wares, showing you the newest technology to help you breathe?

Welcome to Super Bowl week, which has become a parade of former players with their tales of destruction, depression and dysfunction resulting from the very game the entire event exists to celebrate.

It’s the Super Bowl, a festival of excess that ends with America’s unofficial national holiday, the game itself.

Will 38-year-old Peyton Manning, fused together by modern medicine, survive the attack of the punishing Seattle defense? Will Richard Sherman be carted off the field as punishment for his arrogance?

Which player will kill himself in 20 years?

The week has become a pilgrimage of players giving testimony about the pain and punishment of football that destroyed their lives.

Quarterback Ray Lucas tells us how he scouted out locations on the George Washington Bridge for him to drive his car off and kill himself. Defensive end Leonard Marshall tours radio row touting the benefits of a company manufacturing spare parts that helped put his damaged body back together again so he could function.

And, oh, by the way, Marshall says he has brain damage and is one of the thousands of former players who sued the NFL for allegedly withholding information that the game would damage his brain.

Yet we will watch Sunday, millions of us, around our television sets, feasting on wings and beer — some, perhaps, who never even played the game pulling a Ray Lucas, scouting out a location for suicide if the last bet of the NFL season fails to recover the life savings they’ve gambled away.

Football — is there a more damaging spectacle of sport?

The concussion lawsuits have become background noise now. The notion that players we watched in Super Bowls past, such as Tony Dorsett, Art Monk, are now suing the NFL — claiming a cover-up took place while watched — is part of the football fabric now, like fantasy leagues and jersey sales.

The fact that a judge was so insulted by the $765 million settlement between the league and thousands of players in a class action lawsuit that she refused to approve it doesn’t even merit as much discussion as Marshawn Lynch’s refusal to talk on media day.

Judge Anita Brody told the NFL in so many words, “Your players may have brain damage, but I don’t. This is a joke. The revenue from one Super Bowl’s advertising and marketing covers this bill.”

I was thinking of Walt Sweeney this week listening to the tales of woe from New York.

I spoke to Sweeney, a nine-time Pro Bowl offensive guard, before the start of the 1997 Super Bowl. His life was a mess, and he laid it at the feet of football, charging he was turned into an addict during his time with the San Diego Chargers, where his career began in 1963 — a team that was known as the NFL’s candy store for drugs. It ended in 1976 when he pumped six rounds into his bed at Redskins training camp in Carlisle.

Sweeney sued the NFL in 1995, charging the drugs he had been given led to addiction, as well as cognitive and physical damage. He won a $1.8 million judgement in federal district court, only to have the decision overturned on appeal in 1997.

He was a pariah when I spoke to him. Gene Upshaw, executive director of the NFL Players Association, spit out Sweeney’s name like he was cursing when he was questioned about his former rival.

Today, Sweeney would have an entourage, going from one interview to another during Super Bowl week, selling the damage and destruction of football, with the NFL providing the stage for the show.

The contrast — parading the ills of the sport leading up to the game’s most important and watched contest — speaks to the arrogance of the NFL, an entity so powerful and consuming it can put its victims on display and not even suffer a dent in its popularity.

How many scrambled brains would it take for a moment of shame?

What would it take for the price of our entertainment to be too much to pay?

Dave Duerson put a shotgun in his chest and blew open a hole. That didn’t do it. Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his child and then drove to the Kansas City Chiefs training facility and shot himself in front of coach Romeo Crennel and general manager Scott Pioli. That didn’t do it.

I watched first-hand as a smart, intelligent man like John Mackey turned into a child from the effects of playing football. Yet I still watch. And I’ll watch on Sunday.

But it feels like lighting up in a cancer ward.

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