Jay Beeler

When Andrew Luck of the Indianapolis Colts announced in late August that he was retiring as a professional quarterback at age 29, it was a major news story. He cited his constant cycle of injuries and rehabilitation for the decision.

Two years prior Ed Cunningham, a commentator for ESPN, announced that he too was walking away from his job because he could not continue in his role as a cheerleader for the sport knowing that it was unsafe due to the growing evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) in the brain.

At age 50 and a resident of Long Beach for the past three years, his concern for his five and seven-year-old sons was that he did not want them engaged in a sport “where they blow each other up. The brain moves, the heart moves, the ligaments move, the joints move…”

“If you’re doing something that causes injury and hurts, your doctor will suggest you stop doing that,” he explained at a luncheon meeting of Long Beach Rotary two weeks ago.

Cunningham was a successful college football player as center for the University of Washington Huskies, which won a National Championship in 1991. He went on to play center for the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks.

When his professional football career was over, he spent 20 years with CBS Sports, ABC Sports and, most recently ESPN, as a play-by-play announcer and analyst. He resigned prior to the 2017 college season to turn his attention to film and TV production and documentaries, having already won an Academy Award for a best documentary feature in 2011.

“While at ESPN I became a poster boy for how we spoke about concussions and head injuries, offering examples of illegal hits that would be glorified by the other announcers. I was accused of trying to end football by making it safer.”

A Nebraska Huskers critic said, “Ed’s particular talent was to act like a baboon, have the emotional tenor of a baboon while being a buffoon.” Another football enthusiast complained, “This guy is an idiot who won’t shut up while I’m watching my Huskers.”

In late April 2017 ESPN terminated 100 of his colleagues, Cunningham was told his job was safe. But he looked at one of those Panda Express fortune cookies that he kept around his house that said, “Your principles mean more to you than any money or success.”

Not sure what his principles were, he set out to define them as “Driven by how I feel and to help me set appropriate boundaries and take considered, necessary action.”

“So, I called my boss and quit. He laughed. No one cared. I was just an announcer and I went off like a whimper,” he recalled.

Cunningham realized that he still had this platform where he could call the New York Times and explain his actions. The reporter told him “The only way you can tell this story if you say what you feel, instead of bitter words on what you thought.” That reminded him of another favorite Panda Express fortune cookie that said, “Strong and bitter words indicate a weak cause.”

The Times ran his story in late August and it “blew up,” being carried by many media outlets and was the number one online story for 24 hours. I was telling people how I felt, even though expressing feelings is not masculine,” he said.

One football fan opined, “I can fully respect him for aligning with his actions and values even if they do not align with my own.”

Asked how he felt about rugby, soccer and other contact sports, Cunningham described them as “brutal.” He encourages parents to “Raise your level of awareness about how a particular sport may cause injuries before allowing your children to play.” He anticipates that high impact sports will be phased out in public schools.

“Kids who pursue music, arts, philanthropic interests … get a lot more money than those who pursue football or basketball careers. As we go through these times; you need to be honest about how you feel,” he concluded.


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