Emmanuel Acho: Leading a dialogue on race
Emmanuel Acho bristled when urged to relive the anguish he felt as he watched 46-year-old George Floyd pleading for his life and calling out for his mama as Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin pressed his left knee on the back of Floyd’s neck for an excruciating 8 minutes and 46 seconds on May 25.
Acho, a 29-year-old former NFL linebacker, was recently tapped by Fox Sports 1 to drop hot takes on cue as co-host of the daily studio show “Speak for Yourself,” alongside Marcellus Wiley, but he was admittedly slow to opt in to an uncomfortable conversation that has elevated the Black Lives Matter movement to the world.
“I don’t want to get into that emotional space because that was a very heavy space for me,” Acho responded in a tone far different from the one he maintains while on television.
“I remember being speechless; being devastated; being distraught; being utterly perplexed. Speechless because of what I had just witnessed — another Black man literally murdered in front of our eyes while he was begging for his own life, and [while] some were begging for him [and] for the officer to stop. I remember being confused. …
“I was like, ‘This is the state of America? Is this truly the state of the world in which a Black man has to live?’”
Missing was any mention of the word anger.
“Anger doesn’t solve anything,” Acho said. “There was a little righteous frustration, but what am I going to be angry at? The cops? And then do what? I’m solution-oriented, so anger wasn’t going to solve my problem. Anger wasn’t going to solve this world’s problem. I was just busy [thinking], ‘What the hell can I do? What the hell can I do?’”
“I knew he was in a fragile state,” explained Ande Wall, Acho’s friend and former boss at the Longhorn Network, the site of his first TV job after graduating from Texas in 2011. “I knew he was struggling, because he was so overwhelmed with everything going on.”
“Impressive — in so many ways.”
As the lead studio producer for the ESPN-owned Longhorn Network, which launched in 2011 and focuses on varsity sports at the University of Texas at Austin, Wall had an eye for up-and-coming talent. She was taken by Acho’s presence when he stopped by the studio during his final year at Texas to talk UT sports.
“He had something — you could just tell,” she said of Acho. “There are people who are talented in different ways; Manny had everything … just impressive — in so many ways. I remember saying to him at the time: ‘Hey, you’ve got a future in this business whenever you are ready.”
Who is Emmanuel Acho?
The Fox Sports 1 analyst (friends call him Acho) graduated from the St. Mark’s School of Texas in Dallas, lettering in football, basketball and track and field. Widely recruited, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker chose to attend the University of Texas before embarking on a short-lived NFL career. Acho, 29, got his start as an analyst at ESPN-owned Longhorn Network in 2016 before being tapped in June this year to partner with Marcellus Wiley on the FS1 afternoon studio show “Speak for Yourself.”
Acho grew up in Dallas as the youngest of four siblings to parents who had arrived from Nigeria in the 1970s. As a 6-foot-2, 240-pound linebacker, he was a force in college — starting 26 of his 48 games at Texas — but that light didn’t follow him to the NFL. After being drafted in the sixth round by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, he had a seesaw four years in the league, spending time with the Browns, Giants and Eagles but never finding his footing. By 2015, the NFL chapter of his life ended.
Wall, who had been closely monitoring his NFL career, was eager to bring Acho back (even while he hoped to be signed by another team). Acho took a temporary job in 2016 as an analyst for the network — before transitioning to a full-time analyst that fall.
“I remember him being really excited. He was like, ‘You think I can do this?’ And I was like, ‘Absolutely, you can,’” said Wall, who knew Acho was too good to stay for long.
“I remember telling my boss [Tom McCollum] as we worked on Manny’s first deal, ‘We’re going to have to replace Manny soon, we’re not going to keep him long.’ I was surprised we had him two years, instead of one.”
After two years at Longhorn Network, Acho signed a multiyear contract and transitioned from Longhorn Network’s “Texas GameDay” to ESPN’s college football programming in July of 2018. Based in Austin for the duration of his time at Longhorn Network and ESPN, Acho would travel to New York and Bristol, Conn., to make appearances on “Get Up” to talk college football and the NFL.
“Let’s have this conversation so you can learn …”
Seven days after the May 25 killing of Floyd, Acho — while still at ESPN — released the first episode of his “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” digital series across social media.
In the days leading up to the launch of the series, Acho agonized over what to do to help white America better understand Black America’s pain, as well as systemic racism, social injustice, and why people protest peacefully, and even riot.
His decision to step into the race conversation was far from knee-jerk.
“With everything that’s been rising up in our country with the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Floyd, and then also the Amy Cooper [birdwatching] incident in New York, it’s been a slow build,” explained Acho’s older brother Sam, a nine-year NFL veteran and free agent.
“Even before the ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’ video, he had made a different video to just fans, where he said, ‘I know y’all respect me for sports, but I would be remiss if I didn’t use my voice for justice,’” said Sam.
Seated in a chair with no arms — and with an all-white studio backdrop — Acho, his hands placed on his knees, appealed to a virtual audience in the first episode:
“Welcome to the first of hopefully many episodes of ‘Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man,’” he starts out. “In the midst of all this chaos in our world, so many of y’all have reached out to me — and by y’all, I mean white people — asking, ‘How can I help? How can I join in? How can I stand with you?’”
The series launch took some gumption. After all, Acho had no readily known expertise on matters relative to race. Surely he had the intellect: He’d earned a sports management degree at Texas and had aspirations to be a financial business reporter.
But even though he presented well, this audible came with some risk.
Nevertheless, Acho’s big brother said fear — of being criticized, ridiculed or even dragged on social media — never entered his little brother’s mind.
“This is the real Emmanuel, the one who speaks the truth [who] isn’t going to be afraid of what people are going to say or think — that’s always been his calling card,” said Sam, who will release a book this fall, titled “Let the World See You: How to be Real in a World Full of Fakes.” “He’s had a history of being a risk-taker.”
It also wasn’t Acho’s first experience talking about race with a white person on a larger stage.
His former ESPN colleague, longtime NFL quarterback Dan Orlovsky, criticized Portland Trail Blazers star Damian Lillard on May 27 on “Get Up.” After the five-time All-Star guard said he wasn’t keen to return to play out the NBA season, particularly since his team didn’t have a legitimate shot at reaching the postseason, Orlovsky went at Lillard, calling him a “spoiled and entitled brat [for] saying ‘I’m not going to play.’”
The comments drew criticism from multiple media pundits, and from Lillard (who ultimately decided to join his team in Orlando). When Acho caught up to the drama — he checked his Twitter feed and “saw it was Dan getting dragged” — he reached out to his friend.
“I called him, and I said, ‘Hey, bro, I’m going to defend you publicly because you’re my guy. But I can’t defend you publicly unless I have a private conversation with you.’ It was more so just like, ‘Hey bro, let’s have this conversation so that you can learn and grow from this.’”
There was discomfort — on both sides — but the conversation had to take place. Orlovsky was grateful.
“My comments caught a lot of traction, and Acho called me and said: ‘Listen, I know you — I know your heart — [but] you can’t use the word ‘entitled’ as a white guy talking about a Black guy right now, and let me tell you why.’ And I think that moment took our friendship to a different level, because we had a really intimate, intense, personal conversation where I learned a lot.”
The exchange also proved to be the dry run Acho needed for his “Uncomfortable Conversations” series. The first 10-minute segment dropped on June 1 — covering a range of subjects, including the incident in Central Park where a white woman called the cops on a Black man, and whether it’s OK for white people to use the N-word.
Acho rolled out his series across digital platforms — IGTV garnered 11.9 million views, Facebook got 5.4 million, Twitter collected 7.9 million and YouTube nabbed an additional 1.5 million eyeballs.
This instant success caught everyone — Acho included — by surprise.
“This has gotten bigger than anybody ever thought it would have been,” he said. “I never expected 30 million views on Episode 1; I was just going as God led.” Acho produced the series with the help of a small team of people from the agency that reps him (United Talent Agency) plus PR and marketing support from 8 Degrees, with his chief brand strategist, Kristi Roehm, doing a lot of the heavy lifting.
“As soon as this got overwhelming, I needed more help because I am now bigger than I ever thought I would be,” said Acho, who since the launch has built a small team of editors and producers to manage and produce the series.
Episode 2 dropped on June 9, and featured Acho and Academy Award-winning actor (and fellow Texas native) Matthew McConaughey. McConaughey admitted that the first episode opened his eyes to myriad things — including “white allergies,” racist blind spots, or unconscious bias white people may be carrying unbeknownst to them.
Episode 3 followed on June 17, and featured HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines and their five children — one of whom asked Acho if he’s “afraid of white people.” In Episode 4, on June 30, Acho answered viewer email questions, Episode 5 was a candid discussion about interracial relationships, and Episode 6, which dropped last week, is targeted at white parents raising Black children.
At press time, the total number of views for the first five episodes neared 52 million across all channels.
The series presented a new runway for Acho, giving him a voice in the race conversation amid a pandemic. Since the launch, Acho has received national publicity, appearing on “CBS This Morning,” “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” CNN, “Today with Hoda & Jenna,” and “Good Morning America.” He has been contacted by a number of professional sports teams — including the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers, New York Yankees and Dallas Mavericks — to speak with their staff and players.
But the biggest news came on July 14 when Acho announced a book deal with Oprah Winfrey and Macmillan Publishers to bring his video series to print with two books, starting with “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” and later “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Boy” geared toward children.
Bound for Hollywood
Acho’s well-received series didn’t create his opportunity with Fox Sports — he first auditioned there in 2016. It was only a matter of time before his talents took him to Hollywood.
“Acho is genuinely special,” said Charlie Dixon, Fox Sports’ executive vice president of content for FS1, overseeing all content and production on the channel. “One characteristic we emphasize when we look for the talent who lead our daily studio shows is a hunger to have their voices heard and a message that they’re passionate to deliver.
“All shows have a unique goal at inception, but the moment the hosts actually sit behind the desk and take the reins is when you see the show take shape in an organic way, [and] we are just beginning to see where this show will go and what it will become, and we have enjoyed the genuine conversations that Emmanuel and Marcellus have had.”
None of that is lost on Acho, who knows the potential from having his platform on Fox and being in Hollywood.
He explained: “June 10th, 2016 — I had recently retired from the NFL, and I came to L.A. to audition for a [unnamed] show that [ultimately became] ‘Speak for Yourself.’ I was good, but I wasn’t ready. On June 10, 2020 — four years to the date — it was announced that I am now the host of ‘Speak for Yourself.’
Acho is embracing where he is and using his platform for good — while making his parents proud.
“I think my parents seeing me quite literally have an impact that is changing the world, I think that’s a very, very proud moment for them,” said Acho. “They’re just proud of me. Now they just call and talk a lot more often because they want to know everything that’s going on in my life.”
Mark W. Wright is a Charlotte-based sports journalist and documentarian.