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Football analyst Ed Cunningham resigns over brain safety

Revered football analyst Ed Cunningham has resigned from commentating for ESPN and ABC saying he refuses to support the sport in light of studies linking it to devastating brain diseases.

The 48-year-old, who played for the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, has spent 20 years carving out a career in sports journalism. 

But on Wednesday, he announced he is stepping away from one of the top jobs in broadcasting, with immediate effect – citing concerns about the safety of football.

‘In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear,’ Cunningham told the New York Times. ‘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.’

His words come amid a growing swell of research showing concussions and head injuries in the contact sport dramatically increase a player’s risk of developing neurodegenerative diseases. 

And Cunningham has first-hand experience: two of his former teammates have committed suicide, Dave Duerson and Andre Waters. Post-mortem examinations revealed both had CTE, which can cause aggression, depression and suicidal thoughts. 

Taking a stand: Former NFL player Ed Cunningham, 48, (pictured) became an analyst in 1997 and is now a top commentator for ABC and ESPN. But on Wednesday he quit saying he can no longer support the ‘dangerous’ sport amid research tying the sport to brain diseases

Cunningham was captain of the University of Washington's winning team against Iowa in the Rose Bowl in 1991 (pictured in the center of the image). He later played for the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks

Cunningham was captain of the University of Washington’s winning team against Iowa in the Rose Bowl in 1991 (pictured in the center of the image). He later played for the Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks

WHAT IS CTE? 

Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain disease that is caused by repeated hits to the head. 

Over time, these hard impacts result in confusion, depression and eventually dementia.

There has been several retired football players who have come forward with brain diseases.

They are attributing their condition to playing football and the hits they took. 

More than 1,800 former athletes and military veterans have pledged to donate their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation for CTE research.

CTE was usually associated with boxing before former NFL players began revealing their conditions.  

Scores of former players have developed amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), including Steve Gleason of the New Orleans Saints, Tim Shaw of the Tennessee Titans, and Kevin Turner of the New England Patriots, who died aged 46 last year.

And earlier this year, Boston University’s dedicated brain injury investigation team found CTE in 99 percent of former NFL players’ brains in post-mortem examinations.

A number of former players have said they would not have played had they known about the risks. But Cunningham is believed to be the first journalist to take a stand over brain safety concerns.

Speaking to the Times on Wednesday, Cunningham said: ‘I take full ownership of my alignment with the sport. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.’

He insisted he is not anti-football. 

However, he said the relentless rate of injury in every game started to grate, as he heard about an increasing number of players with football-related health issues off the field.  

‘I’ve had teammates who have killed themselves. Dave Duerson put a shotgun to his chest so we could study his brain,’ he said. 

Cunningham said he hopes his stance will trigger further scrutiny into the links between football and brain disorders.

But it comes at an awkward time for the NFL. 

Last month, the franchise cut ties with the National Institutes of Health study into concussion after years of feuding over critical researchers.

Despite vowing in 2012 to invest $30 million in brain injury research, the football league has only paid $18 million, and its contract will expire at the end of August.  

The move came two years after a huge row between the two organizations over Boston University neuroscientist Robert Stern, who is a vocal critic of the NFL and received a chunk of the NIH grant to examine former players.

Just days before the NFL and NIH announced the end of their partnership, Dr Stern’s research team published the explosive report, revealing 110 out of 111 deceased NFL players had signs of CTE in post-mortem examinations.

Dave Duerson

Andre Waters

Personal: Two of Cunningham’s former teammates have committed suicide, Dave Duerson (left) and Andre Waters (right). Post-mortem examinations revealed both had CTE, which can cause aggression, depression and suicidal thoughts

THE STUDY THAT BROKE THE NFL-NIH RELATIONSHIP 

Dr Stern’s Boston University team is leading the groundbreaking and ambitious research project to identify whether there is a direct link between concussions on the field and neurodegenerative diseases in players – including the late Aaron Hernandez.

They are focusing on chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a little-understood condition a progressive neurodegeneration associated with repetitive head trauma. It has been linked to ALS (also called ‘locked-in syndrome’) and Alzheimer’s.

Now, the team has released their first major findings from post-mortem examinations on 202 deceased players’ brains, which were donated to research.

The study included a number of former NFL players, including Bubba Smith, Ken Stabler, Frank Wainright, Dave Duerson, and Junior Seau.

They also interviewed next-of-kin to learn about each player’s clinical symptoms, to compare with their findings.  

The players, who lived to an average of 66 years old, had all played for a median of 15 years – from high school to professional leagues.

Overall, 177 of the brains they analyzed (87 percent) had CTE. 

It was by far the most prevalent among NFL players: they found 110 of the 111 NFL players in the study (99 percent) had the hallmarks of CTE. 

College players had the second-highest rate, with 48 out of 53 college players’ brains (91 percent) diagnosed with CTE. 

They also diagnosed CTE in seven out of eight Canadian Football League players (88 percent), nine out of 14 semi-professional players (64 percent), and three out of 14 high school players (21 percent). 

All three of the high school players had mild CTE.

Junior Seau

Aaron Hernandez

Boston University’s famed CTE team has released major findings from post-mortems on 202 deceased players’ brains. The study included Junior Seau (left), the Patriots player who committed suicide in 2012. The team will soon also analyze the brain of Aaron Hernandez (right), the Patriots player who took his own life this year, and is believed to have had CTE

The majority of all the other players had severe pathology. 

Among those with mild CTE pathology, 96 percent had behavioral and mood symptoms, 85 percent had cognitive symptoms, and 33 percent had signs of dementia. 

In those with severe CTE pathology, 89 percent had behavioral or mood symptoms or both, 95 percent had cognitive symptoms, and 85 percent had signs of dementia.

‘In a convenience sample of deceased football players who donated their brains for research, a high proportion had neuropathological evidence of CTE, suggesting that CTE may be related to prior participation in football,’ the article concludes.   

FORMER PLAYERS PLEDGING THEIR BRAINS

Retired NFL stars Leonard Marshall and Matt Hasselbeck announced in May they would be donating their brains to CTE research. 

Marshall, a two-time Super Bowl winner and defensive lineman for the New York Giants, said the sport has left him struggling with short-term memory loss and erratic behavior at age 55. 

More than 1,800 former athletes and military veterans have pledged to donate their brains to the Concussion Legacy Foundation for CTE research. 

Aaron Hernandez, a former Patriots player, committed suicide in his prison cell in April. His family has donated his brain the Boston team to see whether he was suffering from CTE.

Nick Buoniconti said earlier in May he wouldn’t have played football if he had known about the risks it posed to his brain health.

The 76-year-old former middle linebacker for the Patriots and Dolphins was diagnosed with dementia in October 2016.  

STUDIES SHOW SPORTS INJURIES COULD CAUSE BRAIN DISEASES

1. CLEAR LINK BETWEEN LOW-IMPACT INJURY AND ALZHEIMER’S

Research published last week confirmed the strongest ever link between sports concussions and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Until now, doctors only considered severe traumatic brain injury a key risk factor for developing neurodegenerative diseases.

But the new study by Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM) has – for the first time – shown even low-impact injuries like concussion could have life-threatening consequences.   

They reached their conclusion by scanning the brains of 160 wounded war veterans after tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Using MRI imaging, the researchers measured the thickness of their cerebral cortex in seven regions that have been pegged at the ‘ground zero’ for Alzheimer’s disease.

They also scanned seven control regions – regions that tend not to be affected. 

They found that having a concussion was associated with lower cortical thickness in brain regions that are the first to be affected in Alzheimer’s disease.

Lead author, Dr Jasmeet Hayes, said: ‘Our results suggest that when combined with genetic factors, concussions may be associated with accelerated cortical thickness and memory decline in Alzheimer’s disease relevant areas.’ 

2. BRAIN CHANGES IN HIGH SCHOOL PLAYERS AFTER JUST ONE SEASON

A study at Wake Forest School of Medicine has been examining the brains of high school football players.

One of the participants is the son of former Minnesota Vikings player Greg DeLong. 

The study published in the journal Radiology found measurable brain changes in teen players after a single season of ball – even without a concussion diagnosis.

Now DeLong is speaking out to say he would have seriously reconsidered his football career if he had known the risks.

‘Football’s important to us, but there are other things out there that are more important,’ DeLong told Good Morning America. 

3. CDC BUILDING DATABASE ON SPORTS-RELATED CONCUSSIONS

The CDC has estimated that up to 3.8 million concussions occur in sports and recreational activities each year.

But some experts wonder if those numbers underestimate total brain injuries, as some individuals may not seek treatment for mild or moderate symptoms.

The agency has applied for federal funding to create a database in order to investigate sport injuries and brain diseases more in-depth. 

Meanwhile, the state of Texas has embarked on the largest ever study into concussions. 

State officials hope to track brain injuries among high school sports to discover whether more needs to be done to improve player safety and protect athletes.

The University Interscholastic League, Texas’ governing body for public high school sports, is partnering with the O’Donnell Brain Institute at UT Southwestern Medical Center for the project.

A state as large as Texas, which has more than 800,000 public high school athletes, would be a key step in developing a national database of brain injuries in youths, officials say. 

Read more at DailyMail.co.uk


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