His on-field play helped promote the sport for five years, and he helped the game grow from the booth for nearly 20 years. But Ed Cunningham cannot lend his voice to football anymore.
The longtime broadcaster and former center resigned from his ESPN college football gig this year, no longer able to participate in a brutal sport linked with brain disease, which has seen some of his contemporaries take their own lives.
Cunningham opened up to the New York Times in a story published Wednesday, saying he stepped away from the Worldwide Leader during its late-April layoffs because he could not continue working in a sport that compromised his conscience.
“I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport,” said Cunningham, who had worked for CBS, ABC or ESPN since 1997. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”
Cunningham was a lineman with the Cardinals from 1992 to 1995, when he overlapped with iconic safety Dave Duerson. Duerson shot himself in the chest in 2011, sparing his brain so it could be studied. He was found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a brain disease caused by repeated blows to the head that has become linked with football.
Of the 111 brains of former NFL players tested for CTE, researchers have found 110 had the disease.
“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 said he has displayed no signs of CTE, which only can be diagnosed posthumously. But he fought internally with being a part of a sport whose very identity is violence — a next-man-up game that injures without a blink.
“We come back from the break and that guy with the broken leg is gone, and it’s just third-and-8,” he said.
ESPN laid off about 100 employees on April 26. Cunningham was set to be a survivor, set to be the color analyst for a top college game each Saturday on ABC or ESPN. Instead, as he learned of the bloodshed, he told ESPN executives he was leaving for other work and to spend time with his family. What he was doing in reality was, by all accounts, unprecedented: Leaving the booth because of the dangers below it.
“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…