If Ed Cunningham had not already seen enough, he would be back in a broadcast booth on 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, right 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 – because 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.
“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 toward what he felt 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 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.”
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 pointed 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 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. “He was always one guy you never worried about. He’s a consummate professional.”
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.”
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,” Fitting said. “But this is the world we live in now. More and more players are stepping away in a given season or a given year, and who knows. Are there other announcers out there who have been afraid to do this? I don’t know. Is he going to be a pioneer in this small niche? I don’t know. Who knows what the future holds.”
If nothing else, Cunningham’s decision could prompt some self-examination among those who watch, promote, coach or otherwise participate in football without actually playing it.
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. There are too many good things about football, too many things I enjoy about it. I can understand maybe somebody feeling that way, but I’d be hard-pressed to find somebody else in my business who would make that decision.”
Those especially close to Cunningham were surprised only by the timing.
“He had certainly broadly hinted at it,” Patrick said. “But I thought it was maybe two or three years down the road.”
Certain episodes Cunningham watched from the broadcast booth stick with him. Ten years ago, he was quoted in The New York Times for an article about college players returning to games after sustaining concussions. One of the cases involved Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who was injured during a game against Notre Dame that Patrick and Cunningham broadcast.
“Announcers are part of the industrial complex of college football, and I think we’ve turned a blind eye toward the violence – we have to protect these kids,” Cunningham said at the time.
Cunningham, now a decade older, recounted that episode, among many others.
“That’s 10 years before I walked away, right?” he said. “What took me so long?”
The last straw, he said, was working the Outback Bowl in December, when he saw Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard hobbled, taking hits and being left in the game until the final two minutes of a 30-3 blowout loss to Florida. Beathard went on to be taken in the third round of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. The bowl game – “a game that means less than zero,” Cunningham said – still rankles Cunningham.
“I know some of the coaches from that team, known them for years,” Cunningham said. “And it was hard for me not to walk down after the game and just say: ‘Dudes, what are you doing? Really? What are you doing?’ These are just kids.”
Cunningham teared up again. “I get emotional,” he said.
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, something like a pitch count in baseball. Tougher rules, and even 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.