Amy Trask graduated from UC Berkeley in 1982 and went on to become CEO of the Oakland Raiders in 1997. At the time, Trask was considered one of the most powerful women in sports. She stepped down in 2011 and spent this past season as a CBS Sports analyst.
DC: What’s your educational background?
Trask: I have an undergraduate degree from Cal in political science. I went to USC for law school, but I very quickly point out to anyone I share that information with that I always retain my football loyalties to the Golden Bears. I was one of the trillion law students who goes to law school with no intent of ever practicing law, but I thought it would provide a very good background for business, which it did.
DC: When you were studying in law school, did you know that you wanted to go into sports?
Trask: I fell in love with the game of football when I was very young. A lot of people look at the game of football, played by very strong, very large, very fast individuals, as entirely a physical sport. It’s really a very cerebral game. It’s a game of exploiting match-ups, it’s a game of figuring out how to pick your players and put them in the best position to succeed against whom you are playing. It’s chess played at a very high speed with a lot of contact. I loved the game of football since I was a kid, but I fell in love with the Raiders when I was at Cal. This was a team that would give anyone a chance. The owner of the team who passed away in 2011, Al Davis, hired without regard to race, without regard to gender, without regard to ethnicity. You could be a Raider if elsewhere you had been labeled a behavior problem. And having been labeled a behavior problem in kindergarten, I really liked that.
DC: How did you first get hired at the Raiders?
Trask: I graduated Cal in ’82, and the team moved down to Los Angeles the same year. I thought, “Well, this is great — my team’s coming with me.” When I was in law school, I contacted the team about doing an internship. I called up cold. The gentleman with whom I spoke said, “What’s an intern?” I said, “I work for you, and you don’t pay me.” He said to come on down.
DC: What was it like to work with Al Davis, the owner and general manager of the Raiders from 1972 to 2011?
Trask: It was the opportunity of a lifetime. He is quite a different man than large swaths of the public perceive him to be. I think the biggest misconception about Al Davis is that you couldn’t disagree with him. Because if that were the case, I would have lost my job. I had been at the Raiders for only two to three weeks when Al walked into a room where I was seated with someone else. Al was very angry, and he tore into this other individual on a substantive issue, a topic that was very important to him. As I sat and listened, I realized that the conclusion he reached was based on faulty information. So after listening to him yell for about 10 minutes, I interjected. I said, “Excuse me, but you’re wrong.” His head slowly turned around, and he looked at me with an expression that read, “Who are you, and why are you telling me I’m wrong?”
I said, “Look, if the facts upon which you are basing your conclusion are as you believe them to be, then your conclusion might be fair. But the facts upon which you are basing your conclusion are entirely wrong.” So now he is yelling at me, and I yelled back, and we kept going at this for a fairly long period of time. I later learned that everybody in the building had come out of their offices to listen and didn’t know what to do. I mean, here was this young lawyer, engaged in a top-of-her-lungs argument with the owner. I kept going through the facts, and he ultimately looked at me and said, “All right, I understand. You’re right.”
What that taught me was this gentleman had no problem with someone disagreeing with him. But if you’re going to do it, know your facts. That’s the relationship I had with him for close to 30 years. We had very different philosophies on how to run a business and when it was appropriate to involve oneself in litigation. I ultimately respected the fact that at the end of the day, he was the owner. I was going to present to him all the facts, and I was going to disagree as vehemently as I wished to do so. But when he made a decision, it was my job to effectuate it to the best of my ability.
DC: What’s your philosophy on how to run a business?
Trask: Four C’s. Communicate, collaborate, coordinate and cooperate. They are integral to running a successful business. Just this last year, when I did my first year on television, the first time I was asked something about business on the air, I said, “Well, I think it’s important that we discuss the C-words.” I heard a collective gasp in my earpiece. I’m not sure where the producers thought I was headed with this concept of the C-word.
DC: How did you manage to run a business when the business is also football? Where do you draw the distinction between business and football?
Trask: I was not a business woman who happened to be working for a football team. I was a football person who, because I was a woman, found a way to contribute to the business. I wasn’t going to play or coach. Some people like to draw a distinction between football and business, but the entire business of the organization is football. If you don’t love the game and you don’t live or die with every snap of the ball, it’s not for you. You have to want to be there seven days of the week, to fly home with the team, get in at 3 in the morning and be back at your desk the next morning. Al Davis felt very strongly that the game was all that mattered. It limited us in some of the business projects that I wanted to engage in. There are other owners who might consider the business of football to be as important to the football as football.
DC: What do you see differently about those teams?
Trask: Just a different philosophy. There’s not necessarily a correlation with on-field performance.
DC: What were your hiring practices?
Trask: If someone were sending me a resume or a letter and it contained a misspelling, a grammatical error, a typographical error — not hired. Presumably, if you are searching for a job, you are putting your best foot forward, and if your best foot is a letter full of spelling errors, your best foot is probably not that good. If you’re not ee cummings, you have to capitalize. I would hire people who would say, “I want your job.” Good, you should want my job! If you are being hired in the finance department, you should eventually want to be the CFO. I always wanted to create an environment that allowed people to grow, and I wanted to hire people who wanted to grow.
DC: When you were CEO, you were considered the highest woman in sports. Did you ever feel a pressure that comes with that position?
Trask: I didn’t. The pressure that I placed on myself was to do the best job that I could do. That should be the case whether I was a male or a female.
DC: What was it like being the only woman CEO out of all the CEOs?
Trask: It’s not something I spent time thinking about. The league has something they call two-per-club meetings. They are called two per club because the owner can bring one executive with them. The first time I went, there were no other women in the room. At the time there were 30 clubs, so you have 30 owners and 30 executives and maybe 15 to 20 people from the league office. It took a while for that to start changing. But I never spent any time thinking about it. Where is the value in me wasting any time thinking about it?
DC: What was the hardest season?
Trask: Attending that first Raiders game after Al passed away in 2011 was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I have tears in my eyes, as I remember. I was standing on the sidelines at the very end of the game. I saw the Texans’ quarterback start to run towards the end zone for what would have been the game-winning touchdown. I thought he was going to run in, but he stopped and threw the ball. The Texans’ receiver was wide open in the back of the end zone. I doubled over in pain because I thought we just lost this game.
But I’m not particularly tall, and since all the photographers were blocking my view, I didn’t see we had a safety between the quarterback and the receiver. All of a sudden, all of our players were running to the end zone and throwing themselves on the ground in a pile. We were all crying after that game. Two days later, in the office, I sat down at lunch with a group of players. They said to me, “You know, Amy, we had 10 men on the field for that play.” I looked at them and said, “No you didn’t; you had 11.” So they started explaining to me who ran off and why the package was wrong. And I repeated, “No, you had 11 men.” All of a sudden, they realized what I was saying. We won the game, but it was the hardest game I ever went to.
DC: Why did you decide to resign?
Trask: I agonized over the decision. But I simply believe it was the right time for me to leave. That said, I left, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I was contacted and was presented with this opportunity with the CBS Sports Network. If you would have asked me in the days after I resigned whether or not I would agree to be on television, I would have said absolutely, positively, no chance whatsoever. And I probably would have followed up with a snarky comment that you needed to have your head examined. But I did it, and it was an exciting new adventure.
DC: You came out with an opinion on the Redskins. Why did you make the decision to do that publicly, and why was it important to you?
Trask: I find it incomprehensible that in 2014, we are still having this discussion. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word “redskin” as a derogatory slur. Provide me the name of a group of people that you could refer to with a derogatory slur. You can’t do it. Is it OK to use that word? My answer is it’s not. I believe that fans of the team are not intending to slur anyone, but the fact is, the word is a derogatory slur. When I raised this issue publicly, I noted that the team can voluntarily do something very significant and powerful by changing the name.
DC: There has been a lot of talk about concussions in the NFL. People have even made the analogy that football is starting to morph into a gladiator game.
Trask: The concussion issue is not going away. The league is certainly doing all it can to study and try to minimize the issue. There have been improvements in the way players are coached, in equipment and medical care, but the issue is not going away. Your gladiator analogy is one that I have used in the past. People have to make a choice: whether or not they want to let their children play football. I think that’s a tough choice. The league is working very hard to make sure players are coached correctly. I remember at the Raiders, there were always signs in the locker room that said, “See what you hit,” because you never want to drop your head. Some people will call football a contact sport. It’s not a contact sport; it’s a collision sport.
DC: Would you let your kids play football?
Trask: Well, you know all of my kids have four legs and tails, so I don’t know how to answer that.
DC: Cal football had 11 losses last season. We’ve had issues regarding graduation rates for players in recent years, in addition to complications regarding finances of our new stadium. Any thoughts from the business standpoint?
Trask: When I was at Cal, it was a great source of pride for us that no matter how poorly we did on the field, our athletes were student-athletes and were graduating. I remember we would chant at other teams, pointing out that while they might be beating us on the field, we were beating them in the classroom. I was stunned to learn that about the graduation rate, and I certainly hope that is something that gets reversed very quickly. Let me be very clear: I am a Cal fan. My entire collegiate football loyalty lies with Cal. With that as a backdrop, I think the world of David Shah and the job he is doing over at Stanford. I had the pleasure of working with David while we were both at the Raiders.
Cal did just sell the name of the stadium, which is terrific, and that will be a nice source of revenue. I think Cal struck a very favorable deal both for it and for Kabam. It’s terrific that the company is owned and run by Cal grads. I think that Kabam is a great name for a stadium. I mean, how great is that: Kabam!