Former University of Washington player Ed Cunningham, who called games for ESPN and ABC, said: “I just don’t think the game is safe for the brain. To me, it’s unacceptable.”
LONG BEACH, Calif. — If Ed Cunningham had not already seen enough, he would be back in a broadcast booth 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, 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: 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.
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“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 of what he believed 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…