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These aren’t just practice squad members or fringe players trying to cash in on short careers. There are some big names among the 3,500 plaintiffs, including Tony Dorsett and at least 26 members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of the plaintiffs, former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, committed suicide in April at age 62, and an autopsy found he had CTE.

His widow and the other plaintiffs claim the NFL not only exposed players to risk they shouldn’t have taken, but deceived them and club doctors by insisting repeatedly that head trauma carried little long-term risk.

“On the NFL’s watch, football has become the site of perhaps the gravest health crisis in the history of sports,” lawyers for the former players argued in motions last month asking a judge to reject the NFL’s efforts to dismiss their suits.

The suits have the potential of costing the NFL money, and lots of it. That’s why the league has fought them so hard, no matter how at odds the stance is with the current push toward safer play.

One of Goodell’s mantras in his speech at Harvard was that the game is evolving, and for the better. Change, he said, can only improve the sport and the league along with it.

He’s right about that. But there’s something else the NFL can change, too.

Doing something to improve the lives of the guys who helped get the league where it is today would be a good place to start.

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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