He sat in his car and started making calls. First, his best friend. Then former teammates. He eventually called Mike Patrick, his broadcasting partner on college football. Ed Cunningham had just seen on a Yahoo News feed a story about dozens of his ESPN colleagues losing their jobs in a massive layoff. It was the last fault line.
“I am sitting in my car and thinking: I am losing my love of the job and I know it,” Cunningham said of that day last April. “It had been going away for a long time. That job is the cheerleader spot, the color analyst. It is the biggest megaphone for the sport. We talk to 3 to 4 million people per broadcast. Our words matter. Then that afternoon, all those folks were let go. So I decided to resign. I could not in good conscience in my soul keep my seat anymore.”
On August 30, Cunningham, an ESPN and ABC college football analyst since 2000, announced through an article in the New York Timesthat he had walked away from calling college football because of the trauma he was witnessing on the field. As John Branch of the New York Times wrote, “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 an interview with the Sports Illustrated Media podcast this week, Cunningham elaborated on why he made his decision. He said he remained committed to telling stories about sports including football (he has a long resume as a film producer including on Undefeated, which won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2012) but he could no longer justify working as a football analyst, a role he sees as cheerleading for the sport. Cunningham said calling the Outback Bowl in January between Iowa and Florida was a “data point” in terms of coming to his decision. In that game, former Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard—now with the San Fransisco 49ers—was hobbled after taking continuous blows. Iowa football has since responded to Cunningham’s criticisms.
“I was doing the game thinking, 'What the heck are we doing, what is this?' Cunningham said. “I am not out to indict any specific coach or specific player and C.J.’s Dad has publicly disagreed with me. He said C.J. is a tough guy, let him play. I respectfully disagree and I disagreed enough to raise my voice and say, 'We can’t do that. The culture is the issue.' ... Football is so American because it is exactly setup like war. It really is. I used to think we should not conflate war and football and we still should not. But I’ve had teammates killing themselves—Dave Duerson was a teammate of Cunningham’s with the then-then Phoenix Cardinals in 1992 and 1993. Duerson killed himself in 2011—and I know a few of my former teammates in the NFL who are really struggling right now. That is very real.”
Cunningham said he does not judge any television analyst who wishes to continue calling college football sport and knows there are many in the profession who reacted to his article by saying they see no linkage between calling a football game and the damage that is caused on the field. “I saw [ESPN/ABC analyst] Todd Blackledge made some comments to a Canton (Ohio) paper where he completely disagreed, and that is valid,” Cunningham said. “I was really happy to read his comments and at least have him express it. That was the idea. To at least continue the conversation. ... John [Branch] went to Al Michaels and Al sort of said, “F--- Ed.” And that is fine. That's what this conversation was about.”
Cunningham said he was pushed by a close friend to make a public statement on walking away from broadcasting. He hired a publicist and they came up with a plan to make an impact. The publicist knew Branch and Cunningham was impressed with the care Branch took in his writing and reporting on Derek Boogaard. He also liked having the piece in the New York Times given the publication’s weight and import. Cunningham said he talked at depth with his ESPN bosses—college football executives Ed Placey and Lee Fitting—before taking to Branch. He also cited wanting to send time with his young sons, ages 3 and 5.
The most interesting question heading forward from Cunningham’s story is what it means for others. Will Cunningham ultimately be an outlier in sports broadcasting, or does he turn out to be a pioneer for others who no longer want to walk the line of cognitive dissonance when it comes to football? Of the people I spoke with in sports broadcasting, all believed Cunningham would be an outlier. Nearly all of the football analysts in college or the NFL are former players or coaches. So much of their identity and ethos is linked to the sport. The money in the field—especially at the highest levels—is very good.
“I have not thought about quitting but I have thought how 15 or 20 years ago when a guy got blown up, everything was about the hit and celebrating the physicalness of the hit,” said Sunday Night Football executive producer Fred Gaudelli. “I think we have all changed. When you see someone get hit like that, your first instinct now is, I hope this guy is O.K.” If he looks groggy you are probably keeping the camera on him longer so those people at the stadium in charge or health and safety can see it and remove him from the game. I can’t speak to college but in the NFL those illegal hits are few and far between now. You don’t really see them anymore.
“I think Ed’s is an individual case and a lot of it will be determined by what other opportunities of TV analyst or play-by-play broadcaster would have. If I am a prominent play-by-play person and I had other sports, I could ask not to do those games. But I think it will be an individual thing. I think if it the barbaric nature of the game was being played up, then philosophically you would have a strong case to say I don’t want to be part of this. But I think the fact that everybody has tried to make it safer and not only educate players but everyone else on the right way to play.”
Though he calls another sport—college basketball—Jay Bilas shared similar feelings as Gaudelli in that he did not expect it to lead to others following Cunningham’s path. Bilas said he did respect why Cunningham verbalized what he did.
“When I first heard the news, I was quite moved by Ed's convictions and the depth of his thought on the issue,” said Bilas. “I greatly respect his decision and I thought he articulated the thoughtful reasons leading to his decision. From my seat, this decision was more for Ed's personal well being than to it was a decision to quit in protest or to spark meaningful change. I don't see Ed's decision as a trend.
"While I greatly respect Ed's decision, I believe that one can be equally if not more impactful in the long run by staying in the game, covering the issues both positive and negative, and advocating for positive change from an insider's platform. … When working as an analyst on a game, there is often not sufficient opportunity to discuss policy affecting the game as a whole. However, we have a great opportunity on our different platforms to address policy issues in a longer form manner, and in depth. Ed did beautifully articulate a difficult contradiction regarding college football, and perhaps an existential threat. While pro football players can be expected to assume the risk of head injury for the money, given NCAA rhetoric, it seems a more difficult sell for colleges to jeopardize the health of amateur student brains that they are charged with educating. As we learn more, that contradiction may be even more stark.”