NFF Black History Month Q&A with Ray Anderson

Arizona State Athletics Director and NFF Board Member shares his thoughts on Black History and its connections to football, his career experiences and current events.
Ray Anderson has been a leader in the sports world for more than forty years, joining the National Football Foundation Board of Directors in 2015.
He has been the Vice President for University Athletics and Athletics Director at Arizona State since 2014. Before coming to Tempe, Anderson was the executive vice president of football operations at the NFL. He played football and baseball at Stanford, graduating in 1976. He then earned his law degree from Harvard before embarking on a career in sports law and as an agent.
As an indication of the high regard in which Anderson is held, he was named to Sports Illustrated’s list of the “101 Most Influential Minorities in Sports.”
What role has football played in your life?
There is no question that football has kept me on the path of discipline, giving me an opportunity to make a positive impact from day one. I started playing flag football in junior high. In ninth grade, Lloyd Parkson was my freshman football coach. He had landed as a marine on Iwo Jima, and everything he taught us was against the backdrop of football as a tool for teaching many of the same things he had learned during his military service: leadership, discipline, selflessness, the importance of the whole team, understanding that the last guy on the roster was as important as his projected-star quarterback named Ray Anderson. And he just instilled that in us, and so through football, combined with the military discipline I learned from Lloyd Parkson, I set the discipline, management and cultural approach that I wanted to live by the rest of my career. So, football has been tremendously important every step of the way.
How did your experiences playing football at Stanford and then earning a law degree at Harvard shape your career?
I always knew since I was nine years old when my father passed away that I was going to be a lawyer because that is what he wanted to be. He had always talked about wishing he could go back in time and become a lawyer. I didn’t fully understand it when he died in the summer of 1963, but I was determined to be a lawyer because that’s what my dad wanted to be. And then my village of coaches, teachers, football coaches, administrators, neighbors and family members always just kept me focused on my goal.
Once I got to law school, I wanted to be a litigator. But then I was introduced to the notion that, one can be a lawyer and also be a lawyer in sports. During my first year of Harvard Law School, it really hit me. I can be a lawyer. I can be a litigator. I can be a labor lawyer. And I can do it in the sports industry. That’s where it really fired up in terms of me melding my love for sports with my love and aspiration to be a lawyer.
What was it like at Stanford in the 1970s for Black student-athletes?
No matter where you were in this country, the South, North, West or the East, you had an appreciation, if you were appropriately educated and people had been honest with you, that as an African-American, you are going to be held to a higher standard in terms of proving yourself meritorious of having the same opportunity. So even back then at Stanford, there weren’t a lot of scholarship student-athletes of color. There weren’t a lot of coaches. There weren’t a lot of administrators. So, you knew going in that you really had to excel. You had to apply yourself. You had to be disciplined. And when you have an opportunity, like we had through sports and football, you had to maximize it every step of the way.
What challenges have you faced during your career as an African-American?
Very honestly, in my career, you have to face the reality that there are systemic and other roadblocks put in the way of African-Americans and other minorities, and you have to figure a way to navigate those. So, when you first show up as a Black agent for players, and maybe the general manager or the contract negotiator didn’t realize until he or she met you that you were Black, you knew instantly that there was another set of hurdles to negotiate. Unfortunately, some of it still exists, but you knew that those systemic things were constantly going to challenge you. So, every step of the way, as a Black person, as a minority, you know that those extra hurdles are there systemically, culturally for you to navigate. My strength was I realized that very early in life, and so I always tried to be prepared. It’s harsh, and some people don’t like to hear that, but that’s why this is important to celebrate Black history.
What would be your advice to a young person today for tackling some of the systemic roadblocks that minorities face?
Education is the key. With education and knowledge, you can better fight through the glass ceiling. So, get your law degree. Get your business degree. Get your advanced accounting degree. Get your master’s. The more formal education, you can get, the better you will be equipped to essentially fight the restrictions, fight the constraints, fight the cultural and societal hurdles. They’re not going anywhere or disappearing over the next generation or two. So, you’ve got to equip yourself with as much formal education as possible to be able to deal with it most effectively and separate yourself, very frankly, from the pack.
How have you handled racism that you might have faced during your career?
My education gave me the strength and confidence to know that I will always have a fallback position. Having an education allowed me to never fear that I could be thrown out of the room or my career could be ruined because the other side had these hang ups. I knew my education, along with [my relationships built during my career] that I could literally walk out or terminate a whole discussion.
Is there a specific moment that comes to mind where you experienced racism during your career?
I wouldn’t name any names. But I literally had one general manager early in my career discussing one of his draft choices on the phone. And he really pressed me, saying ‘Who are you? Do you know who you’re talking to?’ That was code for saying, young Black man who the heck do you think you are? We had a very robust conversation, including him using some profanity. I told him point blank: I’m hanging up with you right now and until you can be civil you won’t sign your draft choice. I hung up the phone on him. He circled back within the day to essentially apologize. We got the deal done, but that was a situation, and it was very real. I would never mention the team nor the name because he’s the dearly departed now. But it got really heated because he had made it very clear that how could a Black, young agent be talking to him, an older white general manager on equal footing.
Are there any books or movies that you would recommend to people about Black History?
I would recommend “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents,” by Isabel Wilkerson. It gives a very, very learned and well researched history of the caste system in our country whereby African-Americans are at the bottom of the totem pole and are constantly challenged culturally and systemically to fight their way out as best they can, similar to the untouchables in the Indian caste system. If one really wants to get an appreciation of the reality in our country today, one should read the book.
Who is your favorite Black historical figure?
Martin Luther King. I was born in 1954 during the Civil Rights Movement. I was nine, 10, 11, 12 and a teenager, really coming along, and I really watched and understood what was happening and what he was doing in a very difficult environment. So, I suspect if you talk to 10 people of my generation who are African-American, you’re probably going to get 60 or 70% of us, who will say, Dr. King.
What’s your current take on social injustice in our country today?
It’s been here for 400 years since slavery invaded this country in 1667. So, it’s systemic. It’s cultural. It’s embedded, and it’s ingrained. But I think there is more and more education about how devastating and hurtful it has been. I think you have a generation of young folks coming through who really are anxious to bring this country to a better place.
Are you optimistic about our country’s ability to address social injustice?
I’m very enthusiastic about it because I think the knowledge that used to be really hidden away in this country, like the Tulsa riots, have been brought to the forefront when our former president decided he wanted to do a big rally there. People got educated about the horrific, bigoted and despicable slaughter that happened to Black folk in Tulsa. A lot of folks never even knew about the Tulsa massacre. We’re now just getting much more educated. This generation is much more receptive to go back in history to understand how much injustice has been done. And now, this generation coming up, I think they want to do something about it positively. So, I think it is a movement, not a moment, and I’m very excited about what’s going on.
Do you think athletes should use their platform to take an active role in addressing social issues?
I absolutely do. You have to use whatever platforms are available. It’s not coincidental a lot of the folks with big voices on social injustice are African-American and coming from the sports and entertainment world because that’s where Black folks and people of color have been essentially encouraged and allowed to really thrive. So, if you look across the spectrum, a lot of those voices belong to athletes, and entertainers, and those are the platforms that are most available. So, yes, use them because you need to educate from whatever platform you have.
What are you doing at Arizona State to deal with these issues? And what have some of your student-athletes done since March?
Our student-athletes have been very involved with the leadership at the Pac-12 and certainly on campus. Our Black Student Association and sports figures have taken a real active role with the groups on campus, trying to advance the education. Our President Michael Crow, like others around the country, really came out and put a stake in the ground after George Floyd, saying we are going to make even a more concerted effort on our diversity inclusion efforts here. So, we’ve formed an African-American Alliance, really focusing on ways for all the minority communities at Arizona State institutionally can do better. One of our basketball players Caleb Christopher came up with a logo of a Black hand with our Pitchfork and all the names of all the African-American student-athletes on it, which has become the symbol of our movement here.
You played an important role at the NFL in implementing the Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and top administrator jobs, and you were involved with a similar effort at the college level. Has it been effective?
Four or five years ago when the Super Bowl was here in Phoenix, a number of us, Black minority athletic directors and others, met with Mark Emmert, and we discussed the need to do something similar at the NCAA level, which led to the presidential pledge. It was not mandatory in terms of interviewing minorities or women for certain job openings. But it became a pledge, and a number of university presidents have signed it but not 100%. The intent was the same as the Rooney Rule to encourage campus leaders, presidents, and athletic directors to really consider, more genuinely and objectively, minority candidates for head coaching positions, in particular. It has had some effect, but it hasn’t moved the needle nearly as much as indicated by the numbers. I think it had some impact, but because it’s not enforceable per se, it certainly didn’t meet our aspirations. But at least it has people conscientious of the need to consider diversity when hiring.
What was the process for hiring Herman Edwards and how did race factor into your decision?
I was Herm’s sports agent most of his career until I moved to the Falcons, and I handed it over to my partner Phil De Picciotto who continues to represent him at Octagon, but diversity and inclusion has to be deliberate. It has to be by design. You have to really be deliberate to make sure it is important and considered during hiring decisions. But it was easy, very frankly, with Herm because I had known him for 27 years, and I represented him. I knew who he was and his character. So, it was not a difficult decision because we knew who he was, and we knew he could recruit very well and relate to these young men and their parents. He had done it as a player, a coach, as a TV personality, and there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the number one thing you need here is to be able to recruit, and he could do that. So, it was deliberate by design, but he was the best person for the job. But yes, the fact that he was a person of color mattered.
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