Leaving a positive legacy
Earlier this month, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin spoke at the National Football League's career development symposium at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business in Philadelphia. The symposium was geared toward mid-level coaches and front office executives who aspire to become head coaches and general managers. The purpose was to better prepare those men for the interview process and to help grow and develop their careers.
While the symposium wasn't specifically for minority candidates, the topic of minority hiring was at the forefront. This offseason, there were eight head coaching vacancies and seven general manager openings, and none were filled by an African-American or a Latino.
"It is alarming, from my standpoint, because I know the number of credible candidates who happen to be minorities in our industry," Tomlin said.
Which brings me to Amy Trask. After spending 25 years with the Raiders, starting when the franchise was located in Los Angeles, Trask quietly resigned this month as the team's chief executive officer, a position she had held since 1997. Trask was the highest-ranking female executive of an NFL team and the only woman to be CEO of an NFL franchise.
Trask's resignation, while not surprising, is a huge loss for the Raiders. The franchise is undergoing an extensive reorganization under new owner Mark Davis, who assumed control after his father, Al Davis, died in October 2011. It is also a massive loss for the NFL, which is understandably hypersensitive about its minority hiring practices when it comes to coaches and general managers. Now it has lost its most high-profile female.
There are a few other high-ranking women of NFL franchises. Rita Benson LeBlanc is owner/vice chairman of the board for the New Orleans Saints. Charlotte Jones Anderson is executive vice president and chief brand officer of the Dallas Cowboys. Katie Blackburn is the executive vice president of the Cincinnati Bengals.
But these women have an advantage that Trask did not. Their fathers -- and in Benson LeBlanc's case, grandfather -- own the team for which they work. That doesn't mean they're not qualified. That only means they had an inside edge to reach the level that they have, which makes Trask's accomplishments all the more impressive. No other woman unrelated to the team's owner has come close to achieving the level of success that Trask did in Oakland.
Trask ran the Raiders' non-football operations. She started with the team as an intern while earning her law degree at the University of Southern California when the Raiders were in Los Angeles and went to work for the team full-time in the legal department in 1987. Davis promoted her to CEO in 1997, and she became his most trusted and loyal executive. His support of her was unwavering. Trask represented the franchise and Davis at NFL owners' meetings and was often the voice of reason for a man who could be notoriously unreasonable.
Trask gives all of the credit for her success to Davis, who had a long history of hiring minorities for top positions, including head coach and general manager.
"I had the privilege of working for a man who for many decades hired without regard to gender, race, religion, ethnicity or other distinguishing characteristics," Trask said in an email. "While that happens more now than it did over 25 years ago when I was hired on a full-time basis, the diverse and inclusive environment which Al Davis cultivated is still a rare and precious environment in which to work. I note this because I appreciate that many people don't have the privilege or luxury of working in such an environment."
Trask doesn't like to talk about gender -- hers specifically -- and I don't blame her. Being a female in a male-dominated business is not without its headaches and hiccups. We've all had them. Like most women I know in and around the NFL, Trask doesn't want to be judged as a female in the industry. She wants to be judged as a person.
Nevertheless, it is undeniable that Trask is a pioneer because of her gender.
"It is my view that if I do not want my gender to be an issue, the last thing I should do is consider my gender an issue," Trask said. "In other words, if I want to be regarded, to be evaluated, to be considered without regard to gender, then I should comport myself without regard to gender."
It is a valuable lesson.
The NFL clearly could use more owners like Davis, who never shied from taking a chance on someone. At Wharton, several team executives talked about building the pipeline for minority candidates -- in this case those who aspire to be head coaches or general managers -- so that the pool of qualified candidates grows.
That needs to be done for women, too. Owners have to be willing to extend opportunities to qualified people regardless of race or gender the way Davis did for Trask. She was qualified. She proved she could handle the demands of the job.
Trask undoubtedly will have other opportunities in sports if she so chooses. Another NFL franchise would benefit from having her. Trask was a shrewd negotiator and a respected member of the NFL fraternity. To use Tomlin's word, it is alarming there are not more women like her. There should be.
"People often ask me if there will be more women in executive positions in the league," Trask said. "I hope at some point a woman will buy a team."
That's a lofty goal. A reasonable start would be having owners identify women with potential and help groom them for executive positions. The league is doing that for other minorities. It should do it for women, too.