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Given how deeply in bed ESPN is with the NFL, it’s always somewhat surprising to see the network take a solid stand, journalistically speaking, on an issue that makes the league uncomfortable.

So it’s notable, on Super Bowl Sunday yet, that ESPN’s “Outside the Lines” will feature a piece about several hundred former players — among them such high-profile stars as Jim McMahon and Tony Dorsett — suing the NFL for negligence in regard to its policy toward concussions.

ESPN catches a lot of grief from me over its excesses — flagrantly on display this week with the network’s salivating coverage of college football’s “signing day” — but it does take some balls, as it were, to air a piece that features this quote from Mike McGlamry, the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case: “Tobacco companies for years downplayed or tried to shoot down any research that showed a causal link between smoking and cancer. And very similarly with the NFL, it essentially spent most of its time trying to downplay the independent research out there that showed the causal link between head injuries in football and long-term cognitive issues.”

Other outlets, especially in print, have become increasingly aggressive in reporting on football concussions, and CNN recently aired a solid documentary from Dr. Sanjay Gupta, titled “Big Hits, Broken Dreams,” looking at the dangers from the perspective of high-school players.

Given the billions at stake — many of them courtesy of TV deals, the foremost involving ESPN — it’s hard to imagine anything derailing the NFL gravy train. But credit ESPN for giving the issue attention, on a day when football will be on the whole world’s radar.

“Outside the Lines” airs at 6 a.m. PT. (Full disclosure: I’m a part-time contributor to Foxsports.com.)