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At issue in the lawsuits is whether the NFL either turned the other cheek when it came to blows to the head, or was willfully negligent. As late as 2009, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell appeared before Congress and would not acknowledge a link between head injuries suffered on the field and brain diseases later in life.

That’s changed for the most part, with the league now actively involved in concussion studies. There’s a 10-year, $100 million program in place now to study ways to limit and respond to concussion-related injuries, and there is now strict protocol in place for players who show signs of concussions. The penalties handed down recently by Goodell in the Saints bounty case went far beyond what many in the league expected, almost surely because he realized the delicacy of the issue in light of the lawsuits over brain damage.

There’s also the “88 plan,” co-funded by the league and the player’s union and named after the late Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey’s number. Mackey died at the age of 69 after a long battle with dementia, but not before he and his wife helped bring about the creation of the plan that provides help to those with dementia.

Forgive most of those left behind, though, if they feel like they’ve been cast off and forgotten. The league didn’t take care of them then, and it’s not taking care of them now.

Some made a lot of money, sure. Many others didn’t, and they’re hurting in a lot of ways from playing a sport where hurt is a given.

Much like Mongo, they were only pawns in the game of the NFL.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg