ESPN foot­ball an­a­lyst walks away, dis­turbed by brain in­juries

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - JOHN BRANCH

If Ed Cun­ning­ham had not al­ready seen enough, he would be back in a broad­cast booth on Satur­day af­ter­noon, serv­ing as the colour 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.

“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.”

Cun­ning­ham 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.

Cun­ning­ham built a rep­u­ta­tion 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?”

Cun­ning­ham made it plain that he was not be­com­ing an an­tifoot­ball 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.

If noth­ing else, Cun­ning­ham’s de­ci­sion could prompt some self-ex­am­i­na­tion among those who watch, pro­mote, coach or oth­er­wise par­tic­i­pate in foot­ball.

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