Former University of Washington player Ed Cunningham, who called games for ESPN and ABC, said: “I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”
LONG BEACH, Calif. — If Ed Cunningham had not already seen enough, he would be back in a broadcast booth Saturday afternoon, serving as the color analyst for another top college-football game televised on ABC or ESPN. It is the work he has done each fall for nearly 20 years.
But Cunningham, 48, resigned from one of the top jobs in sports broadcasting because of his growing discomfort with the damage being inflicted on the players he was watching each week. The hits kept coming, in front of him, until Cunningham could not, in good conscience, continue his supporting role in football’s multibillion-dollar apparatus.
“I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport,” he said. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”
Football has seen high-profile NFL players retire early, even pre-emptively, out of concern about their long-term health, with particular worry for the brain. But Cunningham may be the first leading broadcaster to step away from football for a related reason: It felt wrong to be such a close witness to the carnage, profiting from a sport that he knows is killing some of its participants.
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“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.”
Football has dominated Cunningham’s life, he said, since he began playing as a freshman in high school. He was captain of the University of Washington’s 1991 national championship team and a third-round draft choice in the NFL, where he was an offensive lineman for five seasons. He has been a broadcaster since, paired for most of the past decade with the play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick for Saturday afternoon games televised on ABC and ESPN.
As a color analyst, primarily providing commentary between plays, Cunningham built a reputation among college-football fans, and even coaches, for his pointed criticism of what he believed were reckless hits and irresponsible coaching decisions that endangered the health of athletes. His strong opinions often got him denounced on fan message boards and earned him angry calls from coaches and administrators.
“I could hardly disagree with anything he said,” Patrick, who will have a new broadcast partner this season, 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.”
Still a sturdy 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Cunningham explained his position while sitting in a booth at Legends Sports Bar in Long Beach, near his home. The booth had its own television, silently rebroadcasting an NFL preseason game as Cunningham spoke. He never glanced at it.
He made it plain that he was not becoming an anti-football evangelist. The sport’s long-term success hinges on moving more urgently toward safety, especially at the youth and college levels, he said. He has suggestions on ways to make the game safer.
But he grew weary of watching players be removed from the field on carts with little ceremony. (“We come back from the break and that guy with the broken leg is gone, and it’s just third-and-8,” he said.) He increasingly heard about former players, including former teammates and peers, experiencing the long-term effects of their injuries, especially brain trauma.
“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,’ ” Cunningham said. His eyes welled with tears. “It’s changing for all of us. 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 with the Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals in 1992 and 1993. He killed himself in 2011 and was posthumously found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the debilitating brain disease that scientists say is caused by hits to the head. It has been discovered in the brains of more than 100 former NFL players.
Cunningham was also a professional teammate of Andre Waters in Arizona, and he has vivid memories of being humiliated in his first college start by the future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. Waters and Seau killed themselves and were later found to have CTE, too.
“This is as personal as it gets,” Cunningham said. “I’m not hypothesizing here.”
Cunningham displays none of the Alzheimer’s-like symptoms that cripple many of those who are later found to have CTE, which can be diagnosed only posthumously. He said he recently went through testing that revealed no signs of brain problems.
Cunningham was in the prime of his career as a broadcaster, and most likely could have continued to make a comfortable living doing it for decades.
“You could put him on any game and you knew he’d be rock solid and prepared and opinionated and smart and thoughtful,” said Lee Fitting, an ESPN senior coordinating producer who oversees college football coverage for the network.
Cunningham, too, spoke glowingly about ESPN and the job he left behind.
“I was being paid a really nice six-figure salary for not a lot of days of work, and a live-television gig that, except for nonsports fans, people would beat me up to take,” Cunningham said. “I’m leaving a job that’s great. It’s not kind of good. It’s great.”
An ethical dilemma
ESPN laid off dozens of on-air employees in April, but Cunningham was not among them. As the news broke that day, and Cunningham learned of colleagues losing their jobs, he made the decision that had been percolating in his mind for several years. He called and resigned.
At first, Cunningham told ESPN executives that he was leaving to spend more time with his sons, ages 3 and 5, and because of his workload as a film and television producer. He was a producer for “Undefeated,” a documentary about an urban high-school football team, and has a string of projects lined up.
“Those are two of the issues,” Cunningham said. He waited weeks before he revealed the third. “The big one was my ethical concerns.”
A football broadcaster leaving a job because of concerns over the game’s safety appears to have no precedent. “I’ve been in the business 20 years and it’s the first time I’ve ever heard of anything like that,” said Fitting, the ESPN producer. “But this is the world we live in now.”
Al Michaels, the veteran broadcaster who does play-by-play for NBC’s Sunday night NFL broadcasts, said he did not see his role in the booth as an ethical dilemma.
“I don’t feel that my being part of covering the National Football League is perpetuating danger,” he said in a phone interview. “If it’s not me, somebody else is going to do this.”
Cunningham said he hoped being publicly forthcoming about his rationale for leaving the broadcast booth would further the conversation about football safety. His desire, though, is not to undermine the game but to help it.
“I think people are starting to think, ‘What should we do here?’ ” Cunningham 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 OK.”
Among his ideas: No contact before high school. Limit the number of plays per game in which a player may participate. Tougher rules, and in-helmet sensors, for players who dip their heads to tackle. And changes to substantially soften the exterior of football helmets, into something more like memory foam, to reduce the weight and its utility as a weapon.
Cunningham is happy to talk about all of that. He just will not be doing it through a microphone while sitting in a booth high above a football field. He has seen enough.