Reflections on Charlottesville
The Better Side of America

Broadcaster Quits over Ethics Concern

By Jonathan B. Wight

Ed Cunningham, who played pro-football for five years and did TV game coverage for 20 years afterwards, has walked away from the camera.

He initially gave as a reason the standard response of wanting to spend more time with his family.  But he felt bad about that incomplete answer, and has now come clean.

A stronger answer is that he can’t stand to be a person who profits from a sport that is taking excessive risks with players’ lives.  The key problem are injuries to the head, which lead to chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE. 

Cunningham isn’t the only one to say adios to the violence: recently a coach has quit and a pro player has quit.  But these are exceptions.

There is an “industrial complex of college football,” and broadcasters are complicit with coaches, sports promoters, and advertisers, Cunningham says, in pretending that things are okay when really there is a crisis. 

       *    *    *

Everyone should have the freedom to choose their own career, so why doesn’t Cunningham respect the choices made by football players themselves, who choose their profession and continue to play knowing the risks? 

His answer is highly personal—he’s been close to several players who have committed suicide suffering with CTE.  Perhaps they knew the risks as abstract concepts, but that’s a whole lot different once it happens to you.

Is there behavioral irrationality at work—and hence a need for paternalism?  Cunningham makes the case for simple rules:

  • No hitting before high school
  • Each player limited to only a certain number of plays per game
  • Tougher penalties against players who use their helmets as a weapon when hitting
  • Changing the composition of helmets to make them less dangerous

These are modest changes that likely don’t do enough to make the game much safer. Nothing is perfectly safe, so designing something to be risk free is both fruitless and undesirable. 

My own preference is to withdraw the huge public subsidies to pro-football.  These include the public-built sports stadiums, and the huge expenses of college athletics, that pretend to be giving youngsters an education when really it is unpaid sweatshop labor.  Make colleges divest their major money athletic programs from their academic programs.  Enforce greater accountability and transparency about the true cost to society of major league college athletics.  

None of this will necessarily solve the problem Cunningham worries about, and some of these changes might make it worse.  


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I agree with you, Jonathan, that publicly funded sports facilities are ridiculous (and the notion that they somehow serve as investments is risible). I'm not sure I'm with you on the funds expended on major college sports, though. For many of these schools, the sports are cash-flow-positive, as the green-shades say. This is wholly separate, however, from the point you make (with which I agree) that 'student'-athletes are basically indentured servants. Whether a school like Ohio State can still turn a profit after paying a fair wage to its football players is another matter entirely.

Hi Jonas,
Thanks for your note and your questioning. I think the evidence is that very few schools actually come out in the black financially. It's sort of like the belief in tax cuts--people keep saying they pay for themselves, and athletic directors keep insisting that athletic programs earn the green--but ask them to show transparent books and they suddenly look the other way. :) JW

Good point. I'm not as familiar with it, but I know the conventional wisdom is that these programs generate revenue than they expend. Regardless, to your original point, that is irrelevant if that revenue is generated unethically, or, at least, in an ethically questionable manner.

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