Ed Cunningham made national headlines when he voluntarily left his job as an NCAA football analyst for ABC and ESPN after 17 years, because he in good conscience could not talk about one more head-to-head collision or concussion protocol that is part and parcel of the game. So as the NCAA gridiron season ends tonight with the College Football Playoff title game between Alabama and Georgia, how did Cunningham fare without the game that was the focal point of his life for two decades, counting the three years he did the same job at CBS to start his career?
“I didn’t realize how institutionalized my life was,” he told Deadline. “For 20 years, from Thursday to Sunday, from mid-August to right now, I was flying to different events and I didn’t realize what having three days of every week back might mean, good or bad.”
The good is Cunningham has used the time to advance his career as a producer, not surprisingly, of sports-related programming. He already had a background and credits that included producing the Oscar-winning football documentary Undefeated, as well as the cult classic The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, the docu on the Donkey Kong world championships that launched the TV and feature career of its director Seth Gordon.
Cunningham is about to shop a half-hour comedy based on the classic cartoon strip Tank McNamara, featuring a former defensive lineman who becomes an outspoken local sports performer. Cunningham is partnered with Andrews McMeel Entertainment. With Mike Tollin, Cunningham is developing another scripted comedic drama set in the sports world, and based on a true story he wanted to keep under the radar for the moment. He also has percolating an untitled docuseries with Greg Whiteley (Last Chance U, Mitt), which takes a comedic, heartfelt look at our fascination with being considered the best at seemingly anything and everything. The concept is inspired by The King of Kong, Undefeated and Whiteley’s Resolved and Last Chance U on Netflix. He working with his reps at ICM Partners lining up deals.
Cunningham said he has zero regrets about taking the moral stand. I admired it at the time; I find it impossible to follow major college sports, when billions of dollars are being generated and the money finds its way to everyone but the student athletes who risk themselves like indentured servants, hoping to be among the few who find riches on the pro level. That is one of several things that bothered Cunningham, enough that some critics harangued him from harping on things like head-to-head hitting.
“I dearly miss the excitement of live television, piecing together the puzzle of what is basically 4.5 hours a week of unscripted programming,” Cunningham told Deadline. “I loved going on the road. I gave up a cool gig.” He doesn’t miss the game that grated on his conscience, however.
“I don’t think I’ve watched an entire quarter of college football this year,” he said. “I had to lie to myself about the safety of the game to do that job and once I gave up that lie, I can’t watch a collision of a college kid I know is unhealthy. The only time I saw a game was at a party where I took my two sons. It was my alma mater Washington, playing its big interstate rival Washington State, and I saw the quarterback from Washington targeted with a head shot that left him on the turf with convulsions. I couldn’t watch another play.”
The most curious reaction Cunningham has gotten is from players-turned-broadcasters like himself, who somehow feel judged by his moral stand. “Colleagues and people whose lives revolve around football seemed to be saying, ‘Oh, so you made that choice, I have to also? You’re judging me as I do my job.’ I tried to make it clear this was a personal decision I made that has nothing to do with anyone else. Bottom line is, I was making a living off sport I knew was harming these young kids who are not getting paid to play. I am at peace with the decision I made.”
After playing center for the Washington team that won the national championship in 1991, Cunningham played five seasons in the NFL with the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks. He doesn’t feel he’s exploiting sports with a series like Tank McNamara, whose protagonist is very much like him, a former jock who often shines a critical light on the bureaucracy and violence of the games we all love.