It was about 8 months after Emmanuel Acho’s career as an NFL linebacker ended that a reporter first noticed Colin Kaepernick not standing for the national anthem before a preseason game.
The resulting story set off a political firestorm around kneeling, the national anthem, and protests for social justice that for many has been a bigger NFL story in recent years than any recent Super Bowl winner.
Four years on – in spite of constant pressure from conservative groups and tweets from President Trump – the league appears to have moved clearly in the direction of social justice.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell released a video in June in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and protests happening around the country in the wake of the killing of George Floyd. And even some of the most skeptical owners – like Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys – have offered limited support to players by kneeling before (but not during) the national anthem.
Since leaving the league as a player, Acho has become a prominent voice in support of player protests, both as an analyst for Fox Sports 1 and as the host of a new show, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man.”
He recently hosted Goodell for an episode notable for the friendly rapport between the commissioner and Acho, who hasn’t shied away from criticizing the league over the years.
“The NFL, you are a multibillion-dollar corporation,” he said. “You have to do more.”
If Acho has anything to say about it, the player protests aren’t going to stop and may even ramp up. “The owners aren't just going to wake up one day and be like, nah, you know what? I feel bad for these black people,” Acho said.
‘The needs are different state-to-state’
Acho said the NFL needs to embrace more public displays of protest during games. “Sooner or later, we have to go from names on the back of helmets and names on the front of helmets of lost and murdered people,” Acho said.
The league recently allowed players to display one of a limited number of the names of victims of police violence and systemic racism on their rear helmet bumpers.
“The needs are different state-to-state,” Acho said about implementing more changes, “but everybody has to start to get their hands dirty.”
Other leagues – most notably the NBA and WNBA – have given protest movements more prominence this year following the George Floyd killing in May. Players have been allowed to have personalized slogans directly on the back of their jerseys and a Black Lives Matter logo displayed on the courts.
‘Change can occur through dialogue’
“My stance is change has to be forced, I don't think it has to be physical force,” said Acho. “Change can occur through dialogue.”
He wants his web series, which has quickly gotten notice and racked up millions of views, to help serve as a bridge between the opposing sides of the debate as figures like him push for change among owners and fellow players.
“Drew Brees is allowed to have an opinion,” he said of the New Orleans quarterback who was critical of protests within the NFL during an appearance in June on Yahoo Finance. Acho just wants to “make sure that your opinion is at least just.”
Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.