Football

‘I simply don’t suppose the sport is secure for the mind’: Why an ESPN analyst is strolling away from soccer

By John Department

LONG BEACH, Calif. — If Ed Cunningham had not already seen sufficient, he can be again in a broadcast sales space on Saturday afternoon, serving as the color analyst for one more high school soccer sport televised on ABC or ESPN. It’s the work he has completed every fall for practically 20 years.

However Cunningham, 48, resigned from one of many high jobs in sports activities broadcasting due to his rising discomfort with the harm being inflicted on the gamers he was watching every week. The hits saved coming, proper in entrance of him, till Cunningham couldn’t, in good conscience, proceed his supporting function in soccer’s multibillion-dollar equipment.

“I take full possession of my alignment with the game,” he mentioned. “I can simply now not be in that cheerleader’s spot.”

Soccer has seen high-profile NFL gamers retire early, even pre-emptively, out of concern about their long-term well being, with explicit fear for the mind. However Cunningham would be the first main broadcaster to step away from soccer for a associated motive — as a result of it felt fallacious to be such an in depth witness to the carnage, taking advantage of a sport that he is aware of is killing a few of its members.

“In its present state, there are some actual risks — damaged limbs, put on and tear,” Cunningham mentioned. “However the actual crux of that is that I simply don’t suppose the sport is secure for the mind. To me, it’s unacceptable.”

Soccer has dominated Cunningham’s life, he mentioned, since he started taking part in as a freshman in highschool. He was captain of the College of Washington’s 1991 nationwide championship workforce and a third-round draft selection within the NFL, the place he was an offensive lineman for 5 seasons. He has been a broadcaster since, paired for many of the previous decade with the play-by-play announcer Mike Patrick for Saturday afternoon video games televised on ABC and ESPN.

Ed Cunningham, a veteran soccer analyst for ESPN and ABC, in Lengthy Seaside, Calif., on Aug. 23. Emily Berl / The New York Occasions

As a color analyst, primarily offering commentary between performs, Cunningham constructed a status amongst school soccer followers, and even coaches, for his pointed criticism towards what he felt had been reckless hits and irresponsible teaching choices that endangered the well being of athletes. His sturdy opinions usually acquired him denounced on fan message boards and earned him offended calls from coaches and directors.

“I may hardly disagree with something he mentioned,” Patrick, who can have a brand new broadcast associate this season in Cunningham’s absence, mentioned in a cellphone interview. “The game is at a crossroads. I really like soccer — school soccer, professional soccer, any sort of soccer. It’s an exquisite sport. However now that I understand what it might probably do to individuals, that it might probably flip 40-, 50-year-old males into strolling greens, how do you keep silent?

“Ed was within the vanguard of this. I give him all of the credit score on the earth. And I’m going to be outspoken on it, partly as a result of he led me to that consuming gap.”

Nonetheless a sturdy 6-foot-Three and 240 kilos, Cunningham defined his place whereas sitting in a sales space at Legends Sports activities Bar in Lengthy Seaside, close to his dwelling. The sales space had its personal tv, silently rebroadcasting an NFL preseason sport as Cunningham spoke. He by no means glanced at it.

He made it plain that he was not turning into an anti-football evangelist. The game’s long-term success hinges on shifting extra urgently towards security, particularly on the youth and school ranges, he mentioned. He has pointed recommendations on methods to make the sport safer.

However he grew weary of watching gamers be faraway from the sphere on carts with little ceremony. (“We come again from the break and that man with the damaged leg is gone, and it’s simply third-and-8,” he mentioned.) He more and more heard about former gamers, together with former teammates and friends, experiencing the long-term results of their accidents, particularly mind trauma.

“I do know lots of people who say: ‘I simply can’t cheer for the large hits anymore. I used to go nuts, and now I’m like, I hope he will get up,’” Cunningham mentioned. His eyes welled with tears. “It’s altering for all of us. I don’t at present suppose the sport is secure for the mind. And oh, by the way in which, I’ve had teammates who’ve killed themselves. Dave Duerson put a shotgun to his chest so we may examine his mind.”

The NFL brand is proven on purpose submit padding in Detroit. Rick Osentoski / AP

Duerson was a teammate of Cunningham’s with the Phoenix (now Arizona) Cardinals in 1992 and 1993. He killed himself in 2011 and was posthumously discovered to have power traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, the debilitating mind illness that scientists say is attributable to hits to the top. It has been found within the brains of greater than 100 former NFL gamers.

Cunningham was additionally an expert teammate of Andre Waters in Arizona, and he has vivid recollections of being humiliated in his first school begin by the long run Corridor of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. Waters and Seau killed themselves and had been later discovered to have CTE, too.

“That is as private because it will get,” Cunningham mentioned. “I’m not hypothesizing right here.”

Cunningham shows not one of the Alzheimer’s-like signs that cripple lots of those that are later discovered to have CTE, which will be recognized solely posthumously. He mentioned he just lately went by way of testing that exposed no indicators of mind issues.

Cunningham was within the prime of his profession as a broadcaster, and more than likely may have continued to make a cushty residing doing it for many years.

“You would put him on any sport and also you knew he’d be rock-solid and ready and opinionated and good and considerate,” mentioned Lee Becoming, an ESPN senior coordinating producer who oversees school soccer protection for the community. “He was all the time one man you by no means frightened about. He’s a consummate skilled.”

Cunningham, too, spoke glowingly about ESPN and the job he left behind.

“I used to be being paid a very nice six-figure wage for not lots of days of labor, and a dwell tv gig that, aside from nonsports followers, individuals would beat me as much as take,” Cunningham mentioned. “I’m leaving a job that’s nice. It’s not sort of good. It’s nice.”

Memorabilia from Ed Cunningham’s profession as a soccer participant and broadcast analyst for ESPN and ABC, at his dwelling in Lengthy Seaside, Calif., on Aug. 23. Emily Berl / The New York Occasions

ESPN laid off dozens of on-air staff in April, however Cunningham was not amongst them. Because the information broke that day, and Cunningham discovered of colleagues shedding their jobs, he made the choice that had been percolating in his thoughts for a number of years. He known as and resigned.

At first, Cunningham informed ESPN executives that he was leaving to spend extra time together with his sons, ages three and 5, and due to his workload as a movie and tv producer. He was a producer for “Undefeated,” a documentary about an city highschool soccer workforce, and has a string of tasks lined up.

“These are two of the problems,” Cunningham mentioned. He waited weeks earlier than he revealed the third. “The large one was my moral issues.”

A soccer broadcaster leaving a job due to issues over the sport’s security seems to haven’t any precedent.

“I’ve been within the enterprise 20 years and it’s the primary time I’ve ever heard of something like that,” Becoming mentioned. “However that is the world we dwell in now. Increasingly more gamers are stepping away in a given season or a given yr, and who is aware of. Are there different announcers on the market who’ve been afraid to do that? I don’t know. Is he going to be a pioneer on this small area of interest? I don’t know. Who is aware of what the long run holds?”

If nothing else, Cunningham’s resolution may immediate some self-examination amongst those that watch, promote, coach or in any other case take part in soccer with out really taking part in it.

Al Michaels, the veteran broadcaster who does play-by-play for NBC’s Sunday night time NFL broadcasts, mentioned he didn’t see his function within the sales space as an moral dilemma.

“I don’t really feel that my being a part of overlaying the Nationwide Soccer League is perpetuating hazard,” he mentioned in a cellphone interview. “If it’s not me, someone else goes to do that. There are too many good issues about soccer, too many issues I take pleasure in about it. I can perceive possibly someone feeling that approach, however I’d be hard-pressed to seek out someone else in my enterprise who would make that call.”

Ed Cunningham at his dwelling in Lengthy Seaside, Calif., on Aug. 23. Emily Berl / The New York Occasions

These particularly near Cunningham had been stunned solely by the timing.

“He had definitely broadly hinted at it,” Patrick mentioned. “However I assumed it was possibly two or three years down the highway.”

Sure episodes Cunningham watched from the published sales space stick to him. Ten years in the past, he was quoted in The New York Occasions for an article about school gamers returning to video games after sustaining concussions. One of many circumstances concerned Stanford quarterback Tavita Pritchard, who was injured throughout a sport in opposition to Notre Dame that Patrick and Cunningham broadcast.

“Announcers are a part of the commercial complicated of school soccer, and I believe we’ve turned a blind eye towards the violence — we now have to guard these youngsters,” Cunningham mentioned on the time.

Cunningham, now a decade older, recounted that episode, amongst many others.

“That’s 10 years earlier than I walked away, proper?” he mentioned. “What took me so lengthy?”

The final straw, he mentioned, was working the Outback Bowl in December, when he noticed Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard hobbled, taking hits and being left within the sport till the ultimate two minutes of a 30-Three blowout loss to Florida. Beathard went on to be taken within the third spherical of the NFL draft by the San Francisco 49ers. The bowl sport — “a sport meaning lower than zero,” Cunningham mentioned — nonetheless rankles Cunningham.

“I do know among the coaches from that workforce, recognized them for years,” Cunningham mentioned. “And it was laborious for me to not stroll down after the sport and simply say: ‘Dudes, what are you doing? Actually? What are you doing?’ These are simply youngsters.”

Cunningham teared up once more. “I get emotional,” he mentioned.

Cunningham mentioned he hoped being publicly forthcoming about his rationale for leaving the published sales space would additional the dialog about soccer security. His want, although, is to not undermine the sport, however to assist it.

“I believe individuals are beginning to suppose, What ought to we do right here?” Cunningham mentioned. “You may’t throw out all the things. You may’t say it’s all damaged. You need to change the paradigm. How ought to it’s completely different 20 years from now? It’ll be completely different, and I believe fairly a bit completely different. And that’s OK.”

Amongst his concepts: No contact earlier than highschool. Restrict the variety of performs per sport during which a participant might take part, one thing like a pitch rely in baseball. More durable guidelines, and even in-helmet sensors, for gamers who dip their heads to deal with. And modifications to considerably soften the outside of soccer helmets, into one thing extra like reminiscence foam, to cut back the load and its utility as a weapon.

Cunningham is comfortable to speak about all of that. He simply won’t be doing it by way of a microphone whereas sitting in a sales space excessive above a soccer area. He has seen sufficient.

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