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For Want of a Better Protest

August 31, 2017 Leave a comment

Seven years ago, I wondered here whether America might be in need of a more meaningful, perhaps even physical, flavor of civic engagement. Stretching a bit, perhaps, I wrote:

The peak of this time of civic unrest, the late 1960s, has become an archetypical reference point for much of the subsequent civic and political action. The question now is whether this model has been stretched too thin, overused, and, in a certain way, too peaceful, in the age of the internet. Is web-based “social networking” the sort of engagement and participation that would impress TocquevilleKennedyKingPutnam, or Armstrong? Are 140 characters enough for a meaningful treatise? Can a Facebook.com group change the world? Or should we just grab a groupon and plan our revolutions face-to-face at the newest eatery (that checks out on Yelp, of course)? In short, global electronic connectivity has fostered the rise of a sort of wide-sweeping, possibly disparate civic engagement, but is it of significant consequence? Have we walked too far away from the days of settling our differences and sorting things out on the battlefield?

Since then, the reelection of President Barack Obama and the subsequent election of President Donald Trump have preceded and likely fueled an increased attention to and participation in civic engagement and public discourse, at least of a certain variety. It remains to be seen whether this allegedly newfound brand of political participation is politically effective or merely serves to enhance the (digital and corporeal) egos of the participants.

Yesterday, the New York Times published an interview with Ed Cunningham, a person whose name probably is known to few, but whose voice may be more recognizable, memorializing a sort of retirement signing statement from the now-former ABC and ESPN college football broadcaster who apparently resigned this spring but did not disclose the real reason for his resignation, he says, until now: he believes football is a dangerous sport.

In its current state, there are some real dangers: broken limbs, wear and tear. 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.

Cunningham feels his job placed him in “alignment with the sport. I can just no longer be in that cheerleader’s spot.”

First, the timing of Cunningham’s explanation is curious not because it is coordinated with the beginning of the current college football season in order, one assumes, to deliver maximum media impact, but because it did not come years ago. The sport’s governing bodies at the scholastic and professional levels may, like tobacco companies before them, continue to distance themselves from reports and research on the relationship between football and brain damage, but whatever popular science concepts informed Cunningham’s decision are not new.

Second, to the extent Cunningham is fashioning his resignation as a protest designed to effect change in the sport, his approach seems shortsighted. In surrendering his national media platform, Cunningham has traded the opportunity to discuss the issues he claims are so important to him with a relevant audience on a regular basis for the chance to fire a single bullet– yesterday’s article– before disappearing from public sight. If his goal was to make football safer, surrendering an important resource does not seem like the best way to accomplish that goal. Even if he was worried that his superiors would not permit him to make the sort of (pedestrian, frankly) comments he provided to the Times during game broadcasts, it would have made for a more broadly significant departure from his position had a network (i.e., a league “broadcast partner”) terminated him for making those or similar statements. As it stands, someone else simply will replace him, and everyone will move on. The article quotes Al Michaels, a much more prominent football broadcaster:

I don’t feel that my being part of covering the National Football League is perpetuating danger. If it’s not me, somebody else is going to do this. There are too many good things about football, too many things I enjoy about it. I can understand maybe somebody feeling that way, but I’d be hard-pressed to find somebody else in my business who would make that decision.

In an effort to be fair to Cunningham, it is not completely clear from his actual statements quoted in the article whether he made his decision for the purpose of making football safer or for the personal purpose merely of extracting himself from an endeavor he now believes is too dangerous for his participants. Knowing the probable effect of telling his story the way he did, the distinction may be of no significance. If he wanted to be a source of meaningful change, though, Cunningham should have made like his contemporary version of Alexander Hamilton and stayed on his microphone as long as possible. Instead, he’s done just enough to satisfy his own guilt through effortless moral posturing. In that, he is not a unique player in today’s civic arena, but worthy causes deserve more.

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