Amy Trask, the former CEO of the Oakland Raiders and the first female CEO of an NFL team begins her memoir, You Negotiate Like A Girl, with an author’s note that is equivalent to a PG-13 film rating for use of language. She apologizes to those offended but doesn’t apologize for cursing. She ends the note by writing, “If you or such a young person wish to have a career in football, such language is not aberrant, it is the norm.” It is a fair warning that this book isn’t the typical high powered executive memoir.
Trask begins her book during her childhood, when she was diagnosed as a behavior problem in kindergarten. She talked back to adults and teachers, she misbehaved (according to them Trask argues) and writes “Many would say this label is still appropriate.”
Trask was at Cal Berkley for undergrad when she started attending Raiders games. She found kindred spirits among the team also reputed to have behavior problems, and an owner who did not care. Trask moved back to LA for law school serendipitously when the Raiders relocated. She interned with them during law school, had a short stint at a big law firm after graduation, was offered a job in the Raiders’ legal department in 1987, and became CEO 10 years later. She was CEO for 16 of her 26 years at the Raiders. She is still the only woman to hold that title in the NFL. The Raiders owner, Al Davis, is the leading man in Trask’s career and in her book. She dedicates pages and sometimes whole chapters correcting what she considers unfair characterizations of her former boss.
You Negotiate Like A Girl is Trask’s life story, with life and career advice woven into anecdotes. The title suggests it’s a book about being a woman in a man’s arena, but Trask would rather not focus on gender. A refrain of Trask’s is, “without regard to gender.” Trask is not Sheryl Sandberg. They are two smart, powerful women with the same goals and vastly different methods. Trask said she’s been told she’s the antithesis of Sheryl Sandberg. I would argue that is a misogynist, which Trask is not- her philosophy on achieving gender equality is simply to not consider gender at all. “It never made any sense, still doesn’t, that I should want to be accepted, and treated and evaluated in regard to my gender,” Trask said. “If I wanted to enter an owner’s meeting room, a locker room, any meeting room, a business meeting, and I didn’t want anyone to consider my gender, it seems counter-intuitive to me that I should consider my gender.”
The same goes for championing women. “There’s the world view that ‘women should support other women’ and I think that’s a slice of sexism in and of itself,” she told me. “If I want to be supported and encouraged by men and women, if I want to be offered opportunities without regard to my gender, then I should do the same for others…I supported and encouraged women who I thought merited encouragement and I did the same for men. I found throughout my career that there were a number of sensational men who supported and encouraged me.” When recounting instances of sexism, or what she says others interpreted as sexism (Trask presents these situations more often than situations she deemed sexist), usually at league or owners’ meetings, success is her vengeance. She writes that if others try to hold you back or discriminate against you because of your gender, or any other reason, work hard and win by succeeding.
There is still a severe lack of diversity in team and league offices of the NFL, so when I asked Trask if she felt additional efforts should be made, she said, “As far as I’m concerned, businesses who do not hire in an inclusive manner deserve to fail. Whatever the business may be, if they’re not hiring people because of gender or race, ethnicity or religion, then that business is cutting off its own nose to spite its face. At some point, perhaps business Darwinism will take effect.” In theory Trask is right, but the NFL is one of the richest, most powerful sports leagues in the world, and the most powerful in the U.S. The league has no incentive to change, and unless a lack of diversity effects the bottom line, it won’t. Trask knows this.
At the Raiders Trask was given a space and a platform to completely be herself, and found a work environment that fit her values and personality like a tailored suit. This was a huge contributor to her success and rapid rise at the club. She writes, “to thine own self be true,” a phrase she thought her mother coined until she reached college. She said that the major missteps she has made in her life and career resulted from not staying true to herself. Trask never lets the opinions of others or a sense of decorum override her instincts, or prevent her from fighting for the Raiders’ interests.
When Trask got up to speak at a league meeting and the commissioner dismissed her and said they needed to move on, she stood her ground, insisting she had something to say. He said they were moving on, and Trask said she had something to say. After this exchange happened three more times, the commissioner snipped, “Make it quick.” It was not a form of protest, and Trask did not feel this was disrespectful or inappropriate, but later learned that other owners considered it disrespectful of the commissioner and were offended. Trask’s perspective still is she did her job.
At a home playoff game against the Denver Broncos, a fight broke out between the two teams. An injured Raiders defensive back, James Trapp, entered the fray in street clothes from the sidelines. When an NFL official approached Trask to inquire which player had entered the fray, Trask refused to admit “state’s evidence.” When a reporter came up to her a few minutes later saying they knew who it was in a tattletale tone, Trask kicked a chair down two flights of stairs and yelled, “Sit down and write your story!” She confessed if she were in Trapp’s position, she would have done the same thing.
In case Trask ever got in too much trouble, she opened an account with her husband named the “f*** you fund.” They set aside money from every paycheck to ensure Trask could work without worrying she might fired, and know she could and would walk away whenever she wanted. It gave Trask the freedom to conduct herself as she saw fit. “Sometimes, having a bit of ‘f*** you’ in you can be a good thing,” she writes. “I’d rather have it than not.”
Trask’s tenacity didn’t make her many friends. In Sports Illustrated, critics took her to task for using legal technicalities to advance the Raiders’ interests and not the league’s interests, and for questioning former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue’s integrity. “I think people respect her intellect and talent, but she uses it in such a negative, unproductive way that no one respects her as a businessperson,” another team’s second-highest ranking executive told SI. “It’s always about ripping you down, and because of that she’s despised.” Trask’s response was, “I can be very, very tough, and what’s wrong with being tough? If tough were used to describe a man in my position, I don’t think it would be perceived as a negative.”
Davis died in 2011, and Trask resigned from the Raiders in 2013. She is currently a football analyst on CBS, and has no plans to join another club. It was never about working in the NFL for Trask, it was always about the Raiders. “That’s why I haven’t join another club since I left the team…I’ve had discussions with other organizations who have contacted me since I left, but to me being a Raider wasn’t spongeable. I was a Raider.” On the page before the table of contents in her book, a place of pride, is a quote from former Raider and Hall of Famer Gene Upshaw, “She’s not a girl, she’s a Raider,” referring to Trask.
Trask was the CEO of a team in one of the richest, most powerful sports league’s in the world, and is still the only woman to have done so. Women in the league will have an easier path thanks to Trask and her tenacity. Trask’s methods are, but you can’t argue with her results- which is exactly what she wants.