Over the past 20 years, Ed Cunningham has become one of the most recognizable voices in college football by providing color analysis and commentary on both ABC and ESPN. But this week he is walking away from one of the most prominent jobs in sports broadcasting because of his conscience.
“I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport,” Cunningham told The New York Times in an interview published Wednesday. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”
Cunningham says he can’t allow himself to keep promoting and supporting football after seeing the damage done by repeated brain injuries and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
“In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear,” Cunningham said. “But the real crux of this is that I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”
A number of high-profile players have stepped away from the sport recently while citing concerns about the dangers of brain injuries, but Cunningham is perhaps the first well-known figure from the sidelines to retire for similar reasons. Of course, like most broadcasters, Cunningham also has a long personal history with football both on and off the field.
Ed Cunningham started playing the sport his freshman year of high school, which led him to join the University of Washington team in college. As captain of the college team, he led the Huskies to a national championship in 1991. He was a third-round draft choice in the NFL after this and played as an offensive lineman for five seasons. Since he left the NFL as a player, he has been a regular broadcaster working most often with Mike Patrick for Saturday afternoon football games.
During his time as a commentator, Cunningham built a reputation as a safety advocate by criticizing the reckless hits and dangerous coaching decisions he thought put the health of athletes at risk. Early on, this pointed criticism received strong push back from fans and coaches who favored the more risky, explosive play style. However, a growing number of people have come to see the wisdom of his opinions in wake of the “concussion crisis”.
“I could hardly disagree with anything he said,” Patrick, who will have a new broadcast partner this season in Cunningham’s absence, said in a phone interview. “The sport is at a crossroads. I love football — college football, pro football, any kind of football. It’s a wonderful sport. But now that I realize what it can do to people, that it can turn 40-, 50-year-old men into walking vegetables, how do you stay silent? Ed was in the vanguard of this. I give him all the credit in the world. And I’m going to be outspoken on it, in part because he led me to that drinking hole.”
Cunningham says he has seen the change in public opinion himself. He recalled, “I know a lot of people who say: ‘I just can’t cheer for the big hits anymore. I used to go nuts, and now I’m like, I hope he gets up.’”
Unfortunately, this shift has come at a real human cost. “It’s changing for all of us,” Cunningham said. “I don’t currently think the game is safe for the brain. And, oh, by the way, I’ve had teammates who have killed themselves. Dave Duerson put a shotgun to his chest so we could study his brain.”
Duerson was a teammate of Cunningham’s in 1992 and 1993 who committed suicide in 2011. Evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) was found in his brain during a post-mortem autopsy. Cunningham also played with Andre Waters and Junior Seau, both who were found to have CTE after taking their lives.
“This is as personal as it gets,” Cunningham said. “I’m not hypothesizing here.”
At the same time, Cunningham wants people to know that he still loves the sport. He won’t be preaching for it to end anytime soon. However, he says football’s long-term success requires some significant changes in favor of player safety – especially at youth and college levels.
“I think people are starting to think, ‘What should we do here?’” He said. “You can’t throw out everything. You can’t say it’s all broken. You have to change the paradigm. How should it be different 20 years from now? It’ll be different, and I think quite a bit different. And that’s O.K.”
As for the first steps that we can take? Cunningham has some suggestions: No contact before high school with a limit for the number of plays an athlete can participate in during a game; similar to a pitch count in baseball. He would also like to see tougher restrictions and punishments for players who dip their heads into a tackle.
Cunningham is leaving the microphone and cameras behind, but he isn’t leaving football. He just wants to put his effort towards making changes that will help the sport flourish in the future and protect athletes from unnecessary brain trauma.