ESPN Analyst Stirs Up Concussion Conversation

The issue of player safety, particularly brain safety, has been a primary conversation topic in and around football for the past few years. Movies, documentaries, and news exposés have pointed the finger at the NFL for withholding information from players about potential neurological risks.

Some players have walked away from the game. Some former players can barely walk at all. A few have succumbed to a life of constant pain, giving up the fight. Others suffer every day. Meanwhile, hundreds of players thrive on the professional game: the contact, the adrenaline, and the level of competition you can get nowhere else.

There are thousands more in college who want to be those players, and tens of thousands more in high school and youth league football working their way up. Emphasis on work. It takes pride, diligence, and dedication to make it to the “Next Level,” whatever that level may be.

So, the game goes on … and people continue to talk about the love of the game despite the risks. All except one. Ed Cunningham has seen enough and talked enough. The veteran ESPN analyst says he can no longer be a part of the system that is damaging so many heroes.

For the past two decades, Cunningham has been in the booth, calling college football for ESPN or ABC. But now, the 48-year-old at the top of his professional game is stepping away. He will no longer be in the booth this fall. He blames his discomfort with the injuries he was watching week in and week out. Here’s what he had to say:

“I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”

Sports media is saying Cunningham is the first announcer to leave his seat over the controversy about player safety. “In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear… 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.”

And there it is.

The concussion risk. Something that’s been on Cunningham’s mind since his playing days. See, the announcer was not always watching from the sideline. Cunningham started playing football as a high school freshman. He went on to be a captain of the University of Washington’s 1991 National Championships team. He was drafted into the NFL in the third round the following year. He played in the league for five years, eventually moving into broadcasting.

Cunningham’s main job was color commentary — the entertaining breakdowns and conversation between plays. Even then, Cunningham was not quiet about his opinions when he thought players were being put at unnecessary risk. That earned him the ire of fans and coaches alike. Cunningham isn’t listening. He’s too busy thinking about all the players he’s seen carted off. All the retired players struggling to make it day-to-day. Here’s what he said in a recent media interview about his retirement:

“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… 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.”

And that’s Cunningham drawing a line as starkly as he can. The former player and commentator has turned his back on the game he once loved and gone in search of a new reputation.

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