Robert Scheer and Amy Trask Discuss Gender, Race and Profit in the World of Professional Sports
Listen to the full interview below:
—Posted by Emma Niles
Robert Scheer: Hi, I’m Bob Scheer, and this is another episode of Scheer Intelligence for KCRW. The intelligence of course comes from my guest, and in this case it’s Amy Trask. I have to confess that in this interview I am deeply biased, because Amy was actually the first and I think still only CEO of an NFL team that wasn’t an owner. Is that correct?
Amy Trask: The only woman.
Scheer: Woman I meant, yeah, which is great, to break that glass ceiling. She’s written a terrific book, You Negotiate Like a Girl, which she has turned into a compliment. It’s a great reflection on this circus of the Raiders as some people have referred to it, certainly the most interesting of professional football league teams, with its legendary owner Al Davis. My prejudice in this is I am part of the Raider Nation. I’ve been going to Raider games since, I don’t know, the ’60s. Right now I finally moved from the black hole and I’m actually on the 50 yard line, so I can’t claim to be totally objective on the subject.
The Raiders have been in a lot of different struggles in this League, and you’re the serious CEO. You’re not on the player personnel side, you’re on the business side. Why don’t we begin with that? This is big business. It’s a major part of American culture. Big issues are made. Let’s start with one of the ones that your book deals with, the whole question of affirmative action, breaking racial/gender codes. As you point out in the book, Al Davis, what everyone thinks of him, and he’s bee a controversial figure, certainly was a pioneer in professional sports in general and certainly in the NFL in challenging segregation and challenging segregation of roles. He’s the first person to hire an African American coach, I think. Am I wrong?
Trask: Certainly in the modern era, Art Shell, and Tom Flores, the first Hispanic head coach, and you had referenced that he hired me.
Scheer: Yes, right. Why don’t we talk about that? In the book you describe telling Al Davis, “Hey, you’re getting some negative press here and everything. Why don’t you ever mention that you’ve been a great advocate of inclusion and diversity and so forth?” He said, “I didn’t do it for publicity,” and he ordered you not to ever mention it.
Trask: We did argue about that. Look, I know that some of your listeners may love the Raiders and love Al Davis, and many may be what are collectively referred to by some as Raider Haters and they may not appreciate or like, they may have disliked Al Davis, but one thing I believe and I hope that everyone will agree and acknowledge is that he was more inclusive than anyone, and I would go even further and say not simply in sports but in business in general at a time before anyone was thinking of doing this. We just spoke of it. He hired the first Hispanic head coach. He then hired me in an executive role. He hired Art Shell, the first African American head coach in modern times. He operated and he hired and he advanced and he cussed at us without regard to race, gender, ethnicity, religion, or any of those characteristics which have no bearing whatsoever on whether someone can get a job done or not.
I tease about the cussing and I talk about it in the book. That’s the way it should be. There was an instance in which we were in a meeting room and he was introducing himself to a businesswoman who was there as our guest. He went on about he tried very hard not to swear in front of women. I’m looking around the room at my colleagues as if to say, “Is he nuts?” Then he said, “Even if I sometimes slip and swear in front of a woman, I would never swear at a woman.” At that point, my pen just flew in the air and thudded on the table. He looked over and he said, “Oh, I swear at Amy, but I don’t consider her a woman.” Isn’t that what we hope? Isn’t that what we aspire to and dream, that we will all be regarded without respect to race or gender, ethnicity or religion? He did that for decades.
Scheer: Yeah, but also some of us dream of having bosses who don’t swear at us all the time, but you also-
Trask: Didn’t bother me.
Scheer: I know, but you also present actually that he was quite supportive of you …
Trask: Yes, he was.
Scheer: … and the swearing was not an indication …
Trask: Oh, of course not.
Scheer: … of contempt. I must say, it’s the most flattering view of Al Davis that I’ve read, but I think you back it up in a very solid way. People forget that Davis was a rebel in many ways regarding the power of the league, challenging ways. One of those was on the whole question of playing in the segregated South. Why don’t we just begin with that?
Trask: You are absolutely right. I shared the story or the anecdote about swearing not because it was at all offensive to me. To the contrary, the fact that he regarded me without respect to my gender was very, very significant and spoke to Al, just as did his refusal two times during his career to play a game in what was then the segregated South when he learned that the team could not stay in the same hotel. He simply said, “Well, then I’m not going. We’re not going.” Each of those games was moved. It was those sorts of issues, the games being moved because he refused to play them there, his decades and decades long track record of inclusive hiring. You referenced this earlier. I did say to him, “You know, it would be nice if people knew this about you,” and he just stopped me in my tracks, as you noted, and said, “Hey, young lady, let me get this straight with you. I didn’t do it for notoriety.” That was the point. He did it for the right reasons.Scheer: Let me bring up a less flattering aspect about Davis to someone like myself who very happily went to the game just three days ago, and this talk about leaving Oakland once again and, God, go to Las Vegas? At least if you go to LA you could find a lot of good Raider fans.
Trask: They tried.
Scheer: You did it once before, and I opposed it then actually, full disclosure. I wrote a column. I was writing for the LA Times.
Trask: I remember.
Scheer: I wrote a column. I said that this will never be forgiven or forgotten, this coming to LA. I attacked LA for courting the Raiders. I said, “This is equivalent to stealing the water from the north.” I thought it was outrageous. I actually will break with my lifelong loyalty to the Raiders if they move from out of Oakland. I think it’ll hurt Oakland. I think the team plays a positive role. The city has supported it. People like myself paid an extra tax for our seat and so forth. Yeah, maybe you want a stadium where you don’t have the baseball team and the football team playing into the mixed season. There are other reasons. I was on the BART going there. It’s one of the great things. You just get on BART, you go to the game. You don’t even have to park or take your car. Then I went out the other way to Pleasanton, and you see the folks from the whole region coming to this place called Oakland, which, yes, it’s being gentrified, but it’s a city that’s gone through a lot of struggles, and the Raiders are critical to that city’s feeling.
I get the sense that, I don’t want to put you on the spot here, but I get the feeling that the Raiders are doing what every other team does. They’re holding up the public. They’re demanding things from a city that can really not afford it, and they’re threatening to go to some decadent place like Las Vegas where the people don’t know what they’re doing.
Trask: You’re not putting me on the spot at all, and you are in many regards singing to the choir. I was not with the organization when Al made the decision to move it from Oakland to Los Angeles. I was a student at Cal Berkeley and enjoyed making that little trek from Berkeley over to Oakland to watch the games. I wasn’t with the team when he moved it from Oakland to Los Angeles. I was with the organization when he chose to move back to Oakland. I agree with you. The site on which that stadium sits is in my view the most magnificent of any site in the NFL in terms of ingress, egress, a central location. It is the best served by public transportation of any stadium. As you noted, people come from all over the region and the state and beyond to a place they might not otherwise visit, a diverse, dynamic city in Oakland.
There is a deal to be made in Oakland if the team wishes to make a deal, and there’s a deal that can be made. I know we don’t want to turn this into a discussion of debt coverage ratios and EBITDA, but there’s an intelligent deal to be made that will be good for the city, good for the county, good for the taxpayers, good for the team, and good for the National Football League. What we’ve seen is in the last several years the team commit tremendous resources in an effort to relocate to Los Angeles with the Chargers, and that effort failed. Now the team is devoting those resources to an effort to move to Las Vegas, which may or may not happen, but Nevada keeps passing bills to make it more possible that that happens. There’s a deal to be made in Oakland if the team wishes to stay.
Scheer: Football is so important to the cultural life of America that it gets into every other area, whether we talk about health and concussions and kids playing football, whether we talk about gay rights and a gay football player and what gays come in, whether we talk about violence, family violence and when football players, and they’re not the only athletes, they’re not the only people who engage in domestic violence, but it’s a real issue. On those issues the NFL has kept up an image of itself, during the concussions in particular, and I know you’ve gone to a lot of these meetings. You’ve represented the Raiders at NFL meetings. You know a lot about the League. There was a very good documentary called A League of Denial on the concussion issue. What is your insider view about the League and its relation to some of these social issues? Particularly let’s begin with concussions.
Trask: There’s certainly been a change since I joined the League. I joined the Raiders in the mid-’80s and was with the team almost 30 years until I resigned and transitioned into television. There has been a change over the course of those three decades. When I joined the League, when someone was hit, he got dinged. The mantra all week for someone who had gotten dinged or was banged up, another expression was, “Can he go? Can he go?” or the player would be asked, “Can you go? Can you go?” Internally we’d be having discussions prior to a game. “Can he go? Can he go?” That’s obviously changing, and it’s not started changing until much, I’m probably going to butcher this grammar, but the change has been recent. The change didn’t start at the beginning of my career, in the first decade or so of my career.
We are seeing a greater awareness, and I think with respect to all the issues you just raised: concussions, social issues, domestic violence, animal abuse, all of those things. Fans engage in some cognitive dissonance. We’re all complicit, because we can look at something which happens and we can find the behavior abhorrent, but we’re still turning on the game on Sunday.Scheer: There’s no doubt we’re complicit. Let me ask you a question about that, because sometimes, particularly watching college games … At least with the pros, okay, these guys knew what they were doing. They’re going to be compensated. There is a support system. In fact, some of those rules have changed, because you used to not get medical coverage if you weren’t there three years. I forget all the details. That’s actually seems to have improved, but even people like Kenny Stabler and everything were quite bitter at the end, and he was a concussion victim, about whether they got enough support and whether they were alerted to the dangers. Junior Seau is another person. I’ve talked to people in his family about it and whether he was alerted to it. On the college level, it seems to me horrible in that these student athletes are really not protected, and then the NFL gets to treat the college game as a farm team without any responsibility for it. They blow out a knee and then they don’t have the career and then what happens to?
The other question I want to relate to that is a question of: Are these gladiators, these players? Increasingly they’re black. You have like two paths that’s presented to kids, say, in the Oakland ghetto. There’s prison for a large number of people. There’s, if you’re a good athlete, basketball, football, another way. There’s a disconnect. You went to USC after Berkeley. I teach at USC. Sometimes I go to those games and I think, “Wait a minute, the people in the stands, and this is not just true of USC, it’s true generally, don’t look so much like the people on the field.” What’s going on here?
Trask: You raise a number of good topics, and I want to focus on the one you raised at the outset, which is the difference between professional football and collegiate football. Look, if I’m given a choice, play a sport and earn possibly millions and millions and millions of dollars … Certainly the veteran minimum is close to a million dollars, so even if I’m on a team let’s say two or three years, close to an average career, I can make a substantial amount of money in those. I would get the rookie minimum to start and then the veteran minimum. I’m making a choice. Do I want to pursue that financial opportunity in exchange for the physical risks I will take?
I have some very strong feelings about the way collegiate athletes are treated, and the push-back I get when I share my views is, “But they’re getting a free education.” Well, the value that they are bringing the university by playing on that team and the money these universities are making off of the backs of these collegiate athletes far surpass the value of tuition that they’re getting. Something does need to be done for them medically on a long-term basis.
Look, it wasn’t until just a year or so ago that collegiate athletes were even allowed to have snacks around the clock. We were sending, we collectively as a country, as college football fans, were sending athletes to bed hungry. I touch on that because when you think about the amount of money that collegiate football, and to a lesser extent basketball programs, raise for the universities, the thought that these kids are getting sent to bed, or were because this changed in the last year or so, hungry because rules prohibited them from having round the clock snacks, I use that as simply an example of we’ve got to revisit the way collegiate athletes of all sports are treated.
One thing I would posit is lifetime medical for any injury incurred while an intercollegiate athlete. You blow out a knee and you now don’t have a career in the NFL … Maybe it has to be addressed, if you ultimately do because a professional, the knee injury or whatever injury it was didn’t hamper you, you’re now a professional, you’ve got your medical coverage from the NFL. If you’re a collegiate athlete who tears up a knee such that you can’t pursue a professional career, I think the college has an obligation to you.
Scheer: Let me ask you a question that always comes up with breaking the glass ceiling. Of course it’s a human right to be treated equally regardless of gender or race or sexual preference or anything else. That’s a given we’re not going to argue about. There’s always been the idea that there’s a female sensibility that might be added to decision making, yet we’ve had, taking it to a political level, we’ve had Margaret Thatcher in England and she seemed quite capable of going to war, and we have Hillary Clinton now as the leading candidate for President and she seems every bit as hawkish and tough-minded as Donald Trump. I wonder, in terms of this football world, what did you bring as a woman that was different?
Trask: I don’t think I brought anything different as a woman. My view has always been gender-blind means gender-blind. Look, I’ve interacted with women who I think have tremendous sensibility and add tremendous amounts to their respective businesses, and I’ve interacted with men who do the same. I’ve interacted with women who I think are knuckleheads. I’ve interacted with men who I think are knuckleheads. There’s an expression, “Women should support women.” I don’t agree with that in a categorical sense. There’s a lot of women for whom I have tremendous respect who disagree with me on this, but I don’t believe I’m being gender-blind, as I hope others are, if I support people simply because of their gender. I support women who I believe warrant or merit my support, and I support men who I believe warrant or merit my support.
Scheer: I’m Bob Scheer. This is Scheer Intelligence with Amy Trask. We’ll be right back.Scheer: Welcome back. This is Robert Scheer. I’m talking with our guest, Amy Trask, about her career in the NFL. Let’s talk about this disagreement and the question of whether this is a plantation economy, football, with the billionaire owners. The players, even when they make a lot of money, unless they’re really exceptional they can’t go buy a team. I was wondering about that, because Al Davis was a self-made man. He came up through the ranks, played, was a coach and everything else. I never did understand the finances of the Raiders. I don’t to this day, because there were other owners and then somehow he bought them out and ended up owning a team. It’s a story unto itself.
The question of whether athletes have a right to speak up. We’ve seen in basketball increasingly and football athletes saying, “Hey, we have a point of view about a lot of things.” You’ve got it right now on the question of the national anthem and the quarterback of the 49ers saying he’s going to take a knee or not stand, others backing him on different teams. The first response of the Raiders was like the super patriotic one, which Al Davis also was associated with. His slogan was, “I’ll do it my way,” like from the Frank Sinatra song, but his way tended to be pretty conventional in many ways. What do you think about this stirring among professional athletes that, “We can have a point of view that may be unpopular, but we can still play the game”?
Trask: To answer that in reverse order, I discussed those sorts of issues with Al over the course of my career, and he was very patriotic and loved his country, our country, very, very much, but he also recognized when we didn’t do things correctly and he was also very quick to criticize. Look, his refusal to play games in the segregated South is an example of that. One can both love one’s country and take a stand when one doesn’t believe things are being done well or they need to be done better. I’ve been asked by a number of people what I believe his view would be of what Colin Kaepernick has done. Look, Al’s a man who stood up for the courage of his convictions, and I think he would both recognize that one can be patriotic while wanting and demanding one’s country do better than it is doing, and our country does need to do better in a number of areas. Colin Kaepernick has started a discussion we need to have.
Scheer: Maybe there is some growth in openness. It used to be for so long that you could describe it as a plantation. Even if you were a very famous, high paid athlete in one of the major sports, you lost your right to speak out. Cassius Clay, before he became Muhammad Ali, was certainly the first world-renowned actor to … Well, I guess Joe Louis too at the very beginning when he was boxing in Germany. There have been a few, but it’s been very rare.
Trask: There have been some. I have the pleasure and the privilege of working with, one of the television shows on which I appear I work with Laila Ali, Muhammad Ali’s daughter, and the conversations about this, whether it’s Muhammad Ali or any number of other athletes, there have been a few over the course of time. I think and I hope we’re going to be hearing from more athletes, because they do have a position in society where people listen. Again, not everybody has to agree with what Colin Kaepernick is doing, but everybody should agree, I hope, that whether you like his method or not, he has started a national dialogue which is overdue.
Scheer: I want to ask you, end with a few personal questions, but the last political one or social one concerns gay involvement in football. It seems to me, yes, you can not have exactly the speed or something, but you had a very good player who didn’t make it through the camp. Do you think this will change? Is this, the resistance to having gay-
Trask: I’m not sure I understand your reference to speed and how it relates.
Scheer: They said he went to the combine and the speed … You know, you test it and-
Trask: Oh, you’re talking about Michael Sam.
Trask: You’re talking about Michael Sam.
Scheer: I’m sorry.
Trask: I’m sorry. I didn’t-
Scheer: I should’ve set this up better.
Trask: Got it.
Scheer: He was flushed out, but his college career was stellar and he clearly I think should’ve been in the pros or at lest given a shot, and it didn’t happen. Is this the last taboo?
Trask: I think that question depends on who you ask. I spent almost 30 years in and around a locker room environment, and while I was not in the locker room as an athlete, I was in an environment in which there were locker rooms. There were locker rooms in our facility, our year-round facility, at our training camp, in our stadium. I believe, at least with the men with whom I worked, my sense was if you could perform on the field, you would be accepted. I can’t speak for every organization. I can’t speak for every locker room. I’m not suggesting it is not a problem in some places. I just know that there have been situations in which men in the locker room know about one another’s personal life and they go out and they play together.Scheer: Let me just say in wrapping this up, this is a series I’m doing on what I call American Originals, people who come from mixed background and so forth, the crazy quilt of American culture. Somehow we throw up truly interesting people. I don’t always agree with everything they say, but they’re fascinating. Maybe there are other interesting countries in the world, but we have this melting pot. I’ve always known you from afar. I’ve met you a couple of times, but only as a public figure. Who are you?
Trask: Let me interrupt and say that you started by saying that you wanted to raise a potential bias about you being a Raider fan. I will share a bias right now. I’ve long been a fan of yours. I have long been a fan of your wife. That’s my bias, which I will share before I dive into answering these questions about who I am.
Scheer: Let me ask you who you are, because you were at Berkeley and you went to USC for law school, and then you became a lawyer. In your book you say you really had no intention of ever being in a court room. Explain how you end up at the Raiders of all places.
Trask: My parents were sensational in many regards, one of which was making education of all of the children in my family, me, my siblings, their number one priority. As I was getting ready to graduate from Cal, it never was a question of if I would go to graduate school, but really what sort of graduate degree I wished to pursue, and that’s a luxury that I have never for a moment taken for granted. It was a tremendous, tremendous benefit. I chose to go to law school with the stated intent of never practicing law a day in my life, and certainly, even to the extent I would practice business law or transactional law, never, ever, ever, ever finding the inside of a courtroom, which I managed, other than to be a witness in some of Al’s litigation or the NFL litigation.
I fell in love with the game of football as a junior high school student when I attended my first junior high school football game. It’s a very, very cerebral game. Many fans watch and they see the speed and the power and the size and the strength and the collisions, but it’s a very cerebral game. It’s a game of match-ups. It’s a game of strategy. How do I best position my players to best match up against my opponent? It’s high-speed, high-impact chess.
Scheer: Oh, that’s an interesting way to put it. Of course, Al Davis, the one who pioneered the offense –
Trask: The vertical game, right?
Scheer: The vertical game. You ended up there and you’ve fought the good fight over many things, particularly that a woman be taken seriously. Is the game changing? Will there be more diversity? You’ve sort of answered it with some of the issues, but-
Trask: Yeah, it is. Look, I never perceived that I was fighting a fight. I did my job. When I am asked, over the course of my career when I was asked, I’m still asked by young women, “What advice would you give us as young women who want to pursue a career in sports?” my answer is twofold. One, I’ll give you the same advice I’d give a young man. Work hard. Work really, really hard. Work as hard as you can, and when you don’t think you can work any harder, find a way to work harder. Number two, stop thinking about the fact that you’re a woman. Do your job. If you don’t want others thinking about the fact that you’re a woman, it makes no sense for you to be thinking about the fact that you’re a woman. That’s how I approached my career.
Scheer: Let me ask one final question. Why the male sports? This is something you feel … I teach, as I say, at USC college, and I watch these games that women play, soccer and volleyball and swimming and track and all of these things. Football is a particularly, it seems to fit in with the misogynist, violent male culture, and it’s not particularly the most … I know you say it’s cerebral, and obviously I like it, I go watch it and all that, but it’s hard when you’re at a college and you say, “Wait a minute, why are certain sports, they’re cash sports, people go to them, they pay money?” Basketball is a perfect example. Women’s basketball seems to me to be as elegant and complex as male basketball, but it doesn’t make any money. Is that the whole thing?
Trask: I’m going to disagree with one word you used, which is misogynistic or misogynist.
Scheer: I’ll take it back. I take it back.
Trask: Okay. That’s the only thing. I don’t agree with that characterization.
Scheer: It is a male, violent, macho … You could say the same about rugby.
Trask: Right, but to equate a sport …
Scheer: You’re right, you’re right.
Trask: … where you hit between the lines to something that one would take outside of the lines, on that I will disagree.
Scheer: I accept, I accept.
Trask: Look, your question is an excellent question, and it comes down to us as a consuming public. I believe in a free market economy, and people tune in for men’s basketball more than they do for women’s basketball. If we want to change the economy, if we want to change the relative value, well then we need to tune in more to x and not to y and to patronize the sponsors who are sponsoring products or sponsoring the sports, selling products for the sports that may not be as watched. In other words, we have that power as consumers. To a great extent, businesses are businesses. They’re looking at ratings: What are we tuning in to watch? They’re looking at sales: Whose products are we buying? I don’t know the answer to the question, but I know that if people want the result to change, tune in.
Scheer: Okay. That’s a good point on which to end it. I’ve been talking to Amy Trask. She’s written a really delightful book. I say “delightful” not to mean that it doesn’t have heft. It raises a lot of really important points such as we’ve been discussing, but it’s a very enjoyable read, You Negotiate Like a Girl. It’s out there. Pick it up. That’s it for Scheer Intelligence. Our producers are Joshua Scheer and Rebecca Mooney. Our engineers are Kat Yore and Mario Diaz. We’ll see you next week.WAIT, BEFORE YOU GO…
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