Former NFL center Ed Cunningham has covered football for ESPN and ABC for almost 20 years, but today, he made the decision to walk away from the game he loves because he can no longer ignore the damage it inflicts on those who play it.
Cunningham, 48, told The New York Times that he’s resigning from his role as an ESPN college football analyst due to his growing discomfort about the number of head injuries in the sport. After calling games and watching injuries pile up over his 20-year broadcasting career, Cunningham said he cannot, in good conscience, continue to support and make a living off football.
“I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport,” he said. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”
“In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear,” Cunningham. “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.”
Cunningham helped lead the University of Washington to a national championship in 1991 and spent five seasons in the NFL. While with the Arizona Cardinals, he was teammates with Dave Duerson, who committed suicide in 2011.
“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.”
Football is still king in America, but Cunningham’s decision is yet another sign that the sport’s health risks could spell its demise. Don’t get me wrong; the NFL will still be the most popular sport in this country for years to come. It’s a multi-billion dollar industry that lures fans in with the perfect mix of entertainment, interaction (gambling, fantasy football), and star power; but, at what risk? Last month, the NYT published a study from a neuropathologist that studied the brains of 111 NFL players. 110 were found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.), the degenerative disease linked to repeated blows to the head.
More and more parents I know are refusing to allow their kids to play football because the sport is simply too dangerous. Five years ago, I would have laughed at that, but after reading all of the new research and hearing testimonies from former players, and now, broadcasters, I can’t blame them.