“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 N.F.L., where he was an offensive lineman for five seasons. He has been a broadcaster since, paired for most of the last 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 toward what he thought 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 coaches and administrators.
“I could hardly disagree with anything he said,” Patrick, who will have a new broadcast partner this season in Cunningham’s absence, said in a phone interview. “The sport is at a crossroads. I love football — college football, pro football, any kind of football. It’s a wonderful sport. But now that I realize what it can do to people, that it can turn 40-, 50-year-old men into walking vegetables, how do you stay silent? Ed was in the vanguard of this. I give him all the credit in the world. And I’m going to be outspoken on it, in part because he led me to that drinking hole.”
Still a sturdy 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, Cunningham explained his position while sitting in a booth at Legends Sports Bar in Long Beach, near his home. The booth had its own television, silently rebroadcasting an N.F.L. preseason game as Cunningham spoke. He never glanced at it.
He made it plain that he was not becoming an antifootball evangelist. The sport’s long-term success hinges on moving more urgently toward safety, especially at the youth and college levels, he said. He has pointed suggestions on ways to make the game safer.
But he grew weary of watching players be removed from the field on carts with little ceremony. (“We come back from the break and that guy with the broken leg is gone, and it’s just third-and-8,” he said.) He increasingly heard about former players, including former teammates and peers, experiencing the long-term effects of their injuries, especially brain trauma.
“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. His eyes welled with tears. “It’s changing for all of us. I don’t currently think the game is safe for the brain. And, oh, by the way, I’ve had teammates who have killed themselves. Dave Duerson put a shotgun to his chest so we could study his brain.”
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 found to have chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or C.T.E., the debilitating brain disease that scientists say is caused by hits to the head. It has been discovered in the brains of more than 100 former N.F.L. players.
Cunningham was also a professional teammate of Andre Waters in Arizona, and he has vivid memories of being humiliated in his first college start by the future Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau. Waters and Seau killed themselves and were later found to have C.T.E., too.
“This is as personal as it gets,” Cunningham said. “I’m not hypothesizing here.”
Cunningham displays none of the Alzheimer’s-like symptoms that cripple many of those who are later found to have C.T.E., which can be diagnosed only posthumously. He said he recently went through testing that revealed no signs of brain problems.
He was in the prime of his career as a broadcaster, and most likely could have continued to make a comfortable living doing it for decades.
“You could put him on any game, and you knew he’d be rock solid and prepared and opinionated and smart and thoughtful,” said Lee Fitting, an ESPN senior coordinating producer who oversees college football coverage for the network. “He was always one guy you never worried about. He’s a consummate professional.”
Cunningham, too, spoke glowingly about ESPN and the job he left behind.
“I was being paid a really nice six-figure salary for not a lot of days of work, and a live television gig that, except for nonsports fans, people would beat me up to take,” Cunningham said. “I’m leaving a job that’s great. It’s not kind of good. It’s great.”
ESPN laid off dozens of on-air employees in April, but Cunningham was not among them. As the news broke that day, and Cunningham learned of colleagues losing their jobs, he made the decision that had been percolating in his mind for several years. He called and resigned.
At first, Cunningham told ESPN executives that he was leaving to spend more time with his sons, ages 3 and 5, and because of his workload as a film and television producer. He was a producer for “Undefeated,” a documentary about an urban high school football team,…