Saturday, November 4, 2017

The Gap Between Actions And Ideals

As published in The County Times (

By Ronald N. Guy Jr.

Ed Cunningham was an offensive lineman on the 1991 Washington Huskies football team that won the National Championship.  He went on to play five seasons in the NFL and, in recent years, covered college football for ESPN.  Football was in his blood.  It was his livelihood. 

It isn’t anymore.

Despite his notable career, I didn’t know who Cunningham was until last week.  I didn’t even know that he covered college football for the worldwide leader in sports.  After he resigned from ESPN last week and announced that he would no longer be associated with the game of football, I can’t get Cunningham, this long-time stranger, out of my head.   

On the surface, it’s a peculiar move: Cunningham, just 48, immediately and voluntarily severed a lifelong connection with football.  But his explanation added a fascinating level of depth and complexity that has me racked with consternation.

Cunningham divorced football because of debilitating head injuries. 

In his parting remarks, Cunningham noted that, “…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 took “full ownership” of his involvement in the sport but reached a point, after considering the overwhelming connection between football and long-term brain injury, that he could “no longer be in that cheerleader spot.” 
A few years ago, Cunningham’s decision may have been met by snickers, raised eyebrows and, by the particularly boorish and emboldened, social media trolling. 

We’re past that now. 

There’s no denying what’s happening when 22 players, 11 on a side, line up year after year, week after week, day after day, play after play and try to knock the snot out of one another.  The data can’t be ignored.  The movie “Concussion” and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) being diagnosed in the brains of 121 of 122 former NFL players can’t be ignored.  The struggles of former players like Tony Dorsett and Jim McMahon can’t be ignored.  The suicides of Junior Seau, Andre Waters and Dave Duerson, Cunningham’s former teammate, can’t be ignored.  As long as tackle football is played, the participants are at risk of severe consequences, ones largely realized long after the cheers have silenced.   

This new reality is having an impact.  Early retirements from the NFL are growing more common, a trend that touched both local teams this year.  Ravens offensive lineman John Urschel, 26, officially retired in July and Washington safety Su’a Cravens, 22, is currently on the exempt/left team list while he contemplates hanging up the cleats.  Players at all levels are likely pondering the same decision.  And how many parents are now conflicted about their children playing football?

Cunningham, though, is unique in that he might be the first contributor to the game to disassociate himself with football.  His decision wasn’t based on his health or his family, it was rooted in his heavy conscience. 

Cunningham’s brutal honesty and bold action bother me.  I have trouble watching football.  Every game results in injuries – players limping or being carted off, others being knocked woozy or out completely.  Every game, without fail.  No other major sport is like that.  I watched Maryland beat Texas last Saturday – a huge win for the Terps.  But all I could think about post-game was Maryland cornerback Antwaine Richardson who was carted off after sustaining a head injury.

But you know what?  I’ll keep watching, despite my guilt.  My love of the game blinds me.  I want to believe in new safety measures, equipment advances and improved concussion protocol.  So I filter reality and weave a twisted justification to pacify my conscience while continuing to consume the great football machine and sow the enormous pro football carrot.  And that’s what separates Cunningham from me and those similarly conflicted – there’s no distance between Cunningham’s actions and his ideals.  A lack of conviction maintains a gap between mine. 

Whether you agree with these thoughts on football, or don’t give a hoot about the game, there’s something universally inspiring about a person who boldly and authentically follows their beliefs - even the inconvenient ones.  

Especially the inconvenient ones.

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