Cunningham has worked for ESPN for the last 20 years, and said he made the decision in April when ESPN laid off dozens of their personalities. Cunningham survived the cuts, but still made the decision to leave. “I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport,” he said. “I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”
Brain health in football has been an increased topic of discussion in recent months after a study found 110 of 111 former players brains tested had signs of CTE. Cunningham has long been a proponent of players’ health and safety, especially on-air.
Cunningham won a national championship at the University of Washington in 1991, and he played in the NFL for five seasons before going into broadcasting. Dave Duerson, a former teammate of Cunningham’s in the NFL, killed himself. Cunningham said that he shot himself in the chest so that doctors could study his brain.
“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 himself said he has no signs of brain problems. He enjoyed working for ESPN, but is open about why he left in the hope that his story leads to further discussion about the topic that concerns him.
In December, he was broadcasting a bowl game in which Iowa quarterback C.J. Beathard took extensive hits and was still left in the game until the final two minutes with his team down 30-3. That was the last straw for Cunningham. He began to tear up speaking of the moment, the article says.
“I know a lot of people who say: ‘I just can’t cheer for the big hits anymore. I used to go nuts, and now I’m like, I hope he gets up,'” Cunningham said. “It’s changing for all of us. I don’t currently think the game is safe for the brain…”