At the University of Texas, the NFL’s Emmanuel Acho and Fozzy Whittaker joined Austin’s police chief and others in a panel to foster better understanding between cops and African Americans, and lead more athletes to take an active role in working for change
AUSTIN — On Thursday night, President Obama addressed the deep and abiding national problem of race in America in a live town hall from Washington. Meanwhile, in a small lecture hall at the University of Texas, a summit meeting between ex-Longhorns athletes and Austin police officers attempted to tackle that same divisive issue from a local perspective.
“We have a crisis in American policing, and it’s a crisis in leadership,” said Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo in a panel closed to the public, though broadcast on the Longhorn Network. “I don’t think we’re going to fix it overnight but, we must pursue it at all costs. We have to hold each other accountable.”
Former Eagles linebacker Emmanuel Acho organized the event in the wake of the shooting of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge two weeks ago, igniting protests in that city and across the country, followed by the death of another black man, Philando Castile in Minnesota, at the hands of a police officer, and two mass shootings that killed eight police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge.
Acho invited close friend and current Panthers running back Fozzy Whittaker along with Olympic gold medal-winning sprinter Natasha Hastings and Prof. Louis Harrison Jr. to join a panel with Acevedo and members of his staff. Acho, just returned from a medical mission trip to Nigeria, had private-messaged Acevedo on Twitter: “This won’t happen to our city.”
“The biggest thing for me was that I was tired of seeing the hopelessness the despair in the tweets, the Facebook posts. People said, ‘I don’t know where to go from here,’ ” Acho says. “And my athletic background has told me if you have a problem with something you fix it, you don’t sit there and complain about it. I hope this was the beginning of fixing it.”
“This is home,” Whittaker says, “so this is where I need to start.”
Acho and Whittaker found a receptive audience in Acevedo, who has voiced support for the activism group Black Lives Matter and who criticized Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick’s comments earlier this month casting some blame on the Black Lives Matter movement for the killings of Dallas police officers. Said Acevedo: “Shame on him.”
“We had people try to blame Black Lives Matter for the Dallas shooter, but that was just one crazy man,” Acevedo says. “We have to recognize that people sin, and we have to be vigilant and engaged, and we have to move beyond policing. The challenges start with the criminalization of childhood in this country where young people in inner cities are being treated like criminals for adolescent behavior.”
Acevedo has been rebuked for his candor in the past, though he enjoys a great degree of support from a city known as a liberal enclave within the reddest of red states. In February, after one of his officers shot and killed a naked and unarmed 17-year-old African American youth, Acevedo fired the officer for using excessive force. He held a press conference flanked by BLM activists and representatives of other community groups; for this, and for failing to heed an order to refrain from speaking about the shooting, Acevedo was docked five days pay by the city manager, Marc Ott. Austin was spared the social upheaval that has become commonplace in the wake of police shootings of unarmed black men, in part, because the officer himself was also African American. Yet the incident led to a regional conversation about the appropriate use of force.
During the panel, Acevedo detailed an incident two years ago on New Year’s Eve during which he approached an armed robbery suspect who declined to drop to his knees, instead reaching in his waistband. Rather than shoot him, Acevedo negotiated with the man, who was trying to get rid of a bag of marijuana in his pants. He was taken into custody without incident. “Luckily for him, it was a 50-year-old man who has been around the block a few times,” Acevedo said, “and not some young man who just got out of the academy.”
The non-police contingent of the panel pressed the officers for ways to root out the inexperienced and/or hateful police who may have made a different decision. “We’ve got to realize and recognize where the stereotypes lie, and we’ve got to recognize that when we look at someone who is black, we automatically assume some things about that individual,” said Harrison, who teaches a class on athletes and social justice at the university’s School of Education and studies race and culture in sports. “But we’ve got to be able to consciously dial that back. … The problem is, as African Americans, there is nothing we can do outside of talking to let them know I’m not who you think I am.”
While Austin city has boomed in population, the African American population has dwindled and relocated. A recent survey by the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at UT found that while the city’s overall population grew 20.4% between 2000 and 2010, its black population dropped 5.4% due in large part to gentrification that pushed residents out of the historically black east side of town, where black families were segregated during Jim Crow.
Nestled in the center of this changing landscape is the University of Texas and its 50,000-plus students, of whom 3.9% are African American. Within that tiny subset are several dozen African American football players, whose dealings with police often do not mirror that of their student peers or the rest of Austin’s black community; Acho says he was once pulled over at 11:30 p.m. in the city and suspected of drunk driving because his car interior smelled of cologne and gum, but officers realized who he was and chided him for being out so late. (Acho says he never drinks.)
Adds Acho: “Most of the cops, if they stopped me, they let me go. But I wanted to speak up for those who didn’t have a voice. Being black appears to be a problem, but the death sentence is being impoverished and black.”
According to Harrison’s research, the participation of athletes such as Acho and Whittaker in events like the Thursday summit is rare, especially in an environment like Austin. “Sometimes they’re so protected in the athlete bubble they don’t experience police officers being disrespectful and other things,” Dr. Harrison says. “Their perception of the problems of the world are very different than others.”
Whittaker, who has 332 rushing yards in his three NFL seasons, says he never had an unpleasant experience with Austin’s police, but he knows his two-year-old son will one day wrestle with his own racial identity, and he’d like to be an arbiter of change before that day comes. “I never really experienced any injustices to myself; I know it exists,” Whittaker says. “We don’t want something like this to happen in Austin. We’re advocates of change; we want to change the crazy numbers of black people incarcerated and killed by police.”
Many athletes spend so much time mastering their craft, says Acho, that “you forget life exists outside your sport.”
Acho and Whittaker hope their example can be a model for athletes across the country to go back to their hometowns and start conversations with police and communities about uniting against violence. Acho understands the “stick to sports” mantra he hears from a segment of fans on social media, and he even thinks it’s valid in certain cases—just not his own. The Dallas-born veteran of the Browns, Eagles and Giants graduated from UT with a 3.43 GPA and is three credits away from a Masters degree in sports psychology from the school.
“For many athletes, the reason they’ve gotten to such a high level of success is the amount of time they put into mastering their craft,” Acho says. “In doing so you forget life exists outside of your sport.
“You need to educate yourself beyond sports so that you don’t have to stick to sports. For those who haven’t done that, there may be a little merit in sticking to sports, but if you have learned enough to where you don’t have to be relegated, then why would you relegate yourself?”
It’s unclear what impact the closed door panel will have on policy or tangible change; the event was closed to the public for security concerns, and panelists strayed from concrete examples and proposals, choosing to concentrate on big-picture issues.
There did emerge, however, a clear next step.
During the panel, Acevedo said he’d like to see more involvement from respected athletes in bridging what gaps exist between police and the community. “We have to actually be a face in the community; it can’t just be about talk, because the cameras are on,” Whittaker said. “You have to actually see us in the community; you have to see us engaged in the community, or else its just talk.”
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