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Column: NFL calls the shots as new season begins

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(Eds: With AP Photos.)By TIM DAHLBERGAP Sports Columnist

Proof that the NFL really does care about the health of its players was offered up Wednesday by commissioner Roger Goodell with the announcement of a $30 million grant to study brain injuries.

Proof that the NFL really doesn't care about its players is spelled out in recent court filings arguing against compensation for thousands of former players suffering from dementia and other issues after years of absorbing blows to the head on the field.

Take your pick. If there's one thing Goodell and NFL owners have shown in recent years is that they're not afraid to use the power of America's favorite sports league to do pretty much what they want no matter the issue.

That's not always a bad thing for fans, at least those whose taxes aren't subsidizing their local NFL stadium. Opening week alone offers a smorgasbord of football delights with the promise of much more to come. America can't get enough of the NFL, and the league is doing its best to reward the country's insatiable appetite for its game.

It starts with the Super Bowl champion New York Giants against traditional rival Dallas. Then Peyton Manning makes his return on Sunday, while Andrew Luck debuts in his place in Indianapolis.

There's new hope in the nation's capital with Robert Griffin III, and great expectations in New York with Tim Tebow. Mostly, though, there's the simple giddiness of knowing the NFL is just a click away on the remote at least three nights a week for the rest of the year.

Baseball may be America's pastime, but football is America's sport. The NFL can do no wrong, which makes it somewhat surprising that the league doesn't try to do more things right.

Last year it locked out players, intent on making its billion-dollar franchises even more valuable. It worked. The Dallas Cowboys topped the $2 billion mark in the latest valuations by Forbes magazine. Other franchises' worth also increased, with the average NFL team carrying a pricetag of $1.11 billion.

Now a new season begins with field officials more accustomed to working small-time college games than being on the big stage. Determined to teach its referees a lesson about contract negotiations, the NFL is willing to risk the integrity of the game and safety of its players by using replacements who aren't quite ready for prime time.

The usual crews, of course, eventually will come back, hopefully before a game is compromised or a player gets hurt. But they - like the players last year - will do it under terms favorable to the NFL because the league holds the big stick.

It's the same kind of attitude that for years permeated the NFL when it came to concussions. It wasn't until recently that the NFL even acknowledged a link between concussions and serious head injuries, much less offer up $30 million for medical research to the Foundation for the National Institutes of Health.

On the same day Goodell announced the grant, researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health published a study of former NFL players saying they were usually prone to dying from degenerative brain disease, the latest indication that blows to the head may cause serious problems later.

Though the study couldn't prove the results were caused by football-related concussions, most people will draw their own conclusions.

The NFL, meantime, has put its vast legal resources to work to try to fend off lawsuits by 3,377 former players who already have permanent brain injuries from concussions or are showings signs of impairment. The suits accuse the NFL of negligence.

Among the plaintiffs: the widow of former Atlanta Falcons safety Ray Easterling, who shot himself to death in April at the age of 62. An autopsy found that Easterling's brain had signs consistent with chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a degenerative disease that can be caused by multiple concussions.

Another plaintiff is former Chicago Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who suffers memory problems. There are other big names, too, players who helped make the league what it is today and are paying the price, including former Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett.

As the new season kicks off, they are a sad reminder that the NFL has failed its former players.

Not that much of this matters to the average fan. Their big concerns, as told to Goodell in a fan forum Wednesday, were putting an end to blackouts and cheaper preseason tickets.

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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

Tagged: Jets, Tim Tebow

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