Rod West, former Notre Dame Fighting Irish football player and board member of the National Football Foundation, shared his thoughts on Black History and its connections to football, his career experiences and current events.
(Rod West joined the National Football Foundation Board of Directors in 2013. He currently serves as the Utility Group President at the Entergy Corporation, an integrated $20 billion energy company headquartered in New Orleans. West played linebacker and tight end at Notre Dame from 1986-89, and he was a member of the 1988 National Championship team. He went on to earn his JD and MBA from Tulane University. West is a past President of the Allstate Sugar Bowl, a former Trustee at LSU, and a current Hesburgh Trustee at his alma mater, the University of Notre Dame.)
Q&A courtesy of NFF: footballfoundation.org
Q: What has football meant to you? How has it impacted your life from a Black History perspective?
A: Football served as both a platform and a catalyst to learn life lessons about character, accountability, and teamwork; overcoming adversity; learning my limits and surpassing them; and discovering I had a well to draw from to do so. Most of those lessons I learned on the field. But there were also the lessons off the field, particularly from an African-American perspective given my exposure to and ability to learn with and from my teammates. My teammates came from different back grounds and walks of life. We brought our backgrounds and experiences and biases to bear at Brother Martin High School and at Notre Dame. We literally grew up together as young men during those eight formative years. I was born in 1968, two months after Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated, so my generation was that first generation of kids who grew up in the post-1964 Civil Rights Act era. Sports in general, and football specifically, was a bridge to race relations.
Q: Do you feel that football has helped break down racial barriers?
A: Not always, but eventually yes. Football has always served as a mirror reflecting and revealing the prevailing attitudes about race in America. For decades football was a sport, educational platform, and eventual business that reinforced social and economic caste designations based on race in America. When interests aligned to integrate sports, football eventually provided a safe platform where both Black and White Americans could meet, greet, cheer, win and lose, together. And in doing so we discovered just how much we had in common in our pursuit of American ideals around faith, family, community, and football. In that regard football became an American rallying point that helped break down racial barriers. That said, for most of America’s religious experiences, Sunday church services still make it the most segregated day of the week. It is through that lens we can appreciate the impact of football on both Saturdays AND Sundays in breaking down racial barriers in America.
Q: Why did you choose Notre Dame? What was it like to be recruited by Notre Dame in the 1980s? Did race play a factor?
A: My family is from Louisiana. My father’s generation, with few exceptions, only had Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as options. Accordingly, I grew up cheering for Grambling State University and Southern University football. Coach Eddie Robinson, quarterback Doug Williams and wideout Trumaine Johnson were my first college football heroes. By the time I entered Brother Martin High School in the early 1980s LSU was the gold standard in-state and I knew many of their players and coaches. That said, LSU had only admitted its first Black football player ten years earlier. My high school likewise was a predominantly white all-boys catholic school with its own relatively recent history with integration. I knew about Notre Dame, but not enough to say I was a fan.
I had taken official and unofficial visits to many of the major football programs by late 1985 (Nebraska, LSU, Texas A&M, Illinois, Tulane). Lou Holtz had just been named head coach at Notre Dame. I had one official recruiting visit left. For non-football reasons I was really leaning toward attending the United States Military Academy at West Point. Lou Holtz convinced me to make an official visit to Notre Dame. My visit to South Bend changed everything.
Notre Dame’s campus was blanketed with snow when I visited in January 1986. I found the student body make-up was not much different than the winter weather. There was nothing intimidating about that dynamic, but it was noticeable. I did however discover a group of profoundly gifted African-American student athletes who took great pride in competing in both the classroom and on the football field. That was the difference for me. They became instant role models, big brothers, and motivators. That group was led by Byron Spruell who was then an upperclassman, starting tackle and engineering major (current President of League Operations for the NBA). Byron would be named football team captain. He and his teammates affectionately known as the Brothers of Notre Dame created a life-long bond for me with Notre Dame and each of them. They were the reason I called home to tell my parents I was no longer pursuing West Point. It turned out to be a phenomenal decision for me academically, and fortunately, on the football field as well. Notre Dame’s record during my tenure, 5-6, 8-4, 12-0 (national champion), and 12-1.
Q: Do you have a favorite Black historical figure and why?
A: Not just one. I include Frederick Douglass, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King, Jr, Malcolm X, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, as historical figures who shaped my learning curve from a Black history perspective. But in the household that I grew up in, every day for me was Black History Month. So, it still feels a little awkward for me to think about celebrating Black History Month in the shortest month of the year. I take great pride in the contributions African-Americans have made to this country. Of the individuals I referenced, Muhammad Ali in the sports context of Black history and his life, is probably most relevant for me as an African-American, who happened to be an athlete. I include Paul Robeson, Jim Brown, Bill Russell, Gen. Colin Powell, Gen. Russell Honore, Mary McCleod Bethune, Madame C.J. Walker, Ruby Bridges, Fannie Lou Hamer, Shirley Chisholm, Sec. Dr. Condoleezza Rice, Sec. Alexis M. Herman, and Mae Jemison, just to give our NFF stakeholders some perspective on how deep this conversation extends for me beyond sports.
Q: Do you think athletes should use their platform to address social injustice and social issues, particularly racial issues?
A: Yes of course. But as opposed to doing what, not using their platform? I don’t believe there is much of a question as to whether they should be able to. Athletes use their platform to do other things to benefit the community and not just themselves. To be clear, the decision, as to whether one does or does not, ultimately is that person’s call. We can legitimately debate the time place and manner of doing so, but there is nothing about athletics or any other pursuit that deprives a man or woman from standing up and speaking on issues that are important to them. I’ll note that it is axiomatic in the African-American community that Freedom of Speech does not mean freedom from consequences. Athletes, no different than any other stakeholder in American discourse have the choice to call attention to social injustice or social issues by any means available to them. That is both patriotic and quintessentially American.
The irony is the only time that question arises is in the context of an African-American athlete or entertainer who is speaking up about issues impacting the Black community. And, the expectation, which is more oft than not from segments of the white community, is that Black athletes or entertainers should shut up and play ball or entertain. I reject that narrative.
Q: What are some of the obstacles you faced during your career?
A: The biggest obstacle I’ve faced in my career is the same obstacle other African-Americans or people of color face every day in America in all of its pernicious forms from the cradle to the grave: the Tyranny or Bigotry of Low Expectations: That represents the automatic assumptions that someone would make about me at first sight, based solely on the fact that I am a Black man, or was a Black child, or Black student athlete, or from a certain part of the country, state, city, or neighborhood, or socio-economic status. Each of these assumptions and those like them have historically influenced the environment in which I live, learn, work, worship, and play. The cumulative weight of seeking to overcome negative assumptions based solely on the immutable characteristic of race amounts to tyranny whether intended or not.
I’ll present a quick light touch example that makes the point: Imagine a professional or social setting where you didn’t know me or my background or resume and we met each other in a group or other setting. Ask yourself what assumptions might you make about me based just on my appearance as a Black man? As we engage in conversation, I notice you react with some surprise upon hearing me speak. It’s a scene that many African-Americans can relate to and they already know where this is going. As we are wrapping up our dialogue the following words are uttered:
’Wow, Rod, you’re just so articulate.’
And my response would be, so, what did you expect of me? Of course, that response usually merits an exasperated eye rolled “I meant it as a compliment.” That’s not the point. Of course, it was meant it as a compliment. The issue was the expectation and assumption underlying the compliment. What I heard was I was articulate for someone who is Black or you expected me to sound different. It may sound trite but imagine how these assumptions play out every day in this country in public and private education, housing, and employment, healthcare. Imagine bearing the cumulative weight of overcoming these negative assumptions and to earning the benefit of the doubt that others get simply because their worth and value were never in question to begin with based on their race. This topic often confounds my white friends and colleagues when I describe this dynamic as the essence of “white privilege.” White privilege is not the absence of hardship or difficulty in one’s life. It’s the presence of social, economic, or cultural affirmation and benefits based solely on race not afforded to non-whites.
Q: What advice would you give a young Black person who might like to follow your career path, which currently has you running a $20 billion company?
A: My wife Madeline and I are the proud parents of our daughter Simone. She’s 25. First and foremost, we advise her to be true to who she is put the work in, and don’t be afraid to ask for help along the way. But when I give advice to other African-Americans and other young people in general, athletes or not, it’s messaging around two ideas: (1) Paying the Price for Success and (2) Adapting to Change.
My first advice is to understand the connection between SUCCESS and WORK. Success comes before work in only one place, and that’s the dictionary. Particularly with younger people who are led to believe that success is inevitable, the notion of putting the work in gets confused with paying dues. Hard work doesn’t guarantee success; however, expecting success without work is a losing proposition. If you’re willing to live, like few people are willing to do and put the work in just for a little while, you can live like few people can for the rest of your life.
My second advice is to develop the range and ability to adapt to changing circumstances. There is a quote by Alvin Toffler that has resonated with me for quite some time. He said that the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn. So, my advice to young people is, if you’re fortunate enough to go to college or you have worked your way up through high school or trade school, you haven’t arrived just because you’ve earned the degree. You’re going to be presented with both opportunities and challenges, and you’re going to have to adapt by learning to learn; learning to unlearn; and then relearning the newest, the latest, the greatest.
My career path was not a straight line up. It’s a series of decision points, inflection points, ups and downs, peaks and valleys. And that has to be expected, and that’s life. Life is what happens to you while you’re making other plans. Every day is a constant series of preparing for what ifs, and responding to a series of ok now what?
Q: Is there a specific moment where you dealt with racism during your career?
A: There are too many instances, both overt and subtle, to put on paper. Tyranny of low expectations is a constant theme for good reason. I was in a professional setting where I was part of a group hosting a black-tie event with our customers, partners, etc. While standing with one of my colleagues (who happened to be white), one of the clients (who happened to be white) walked right past my colleague and up to me to hand me her used cocktail plate and drink glass and let me know that she was finished.
Q: How did you handle the person handing you the used plate? And as you have progressed in your career have you handled those types of situations differently?
A: I did not make a scene. In fact, I took the person’s dish and calmly walked away with it, much to the dismay and embarrassment of my white colleagues who saw exactly what had happened. I gathered myself because I didn’t want to make it all about me. But I assure you, the conversations that ensued were direct and to the point in terms of changing the culture of the place where I worked as a young African-American professional at that time. In subsequent years, I can tell you when faced with similar dynamics, I wish I still had the same patience I exhibited when I was younger.
Q: What is your take on social justice today in our country?
A: We should first be clear about what we mean by the term. We use the term social justice because it doesn’t sound as harsh or as indicting as what we’re really referring to, which is racism, bigotry, hatred and all the means by which these manifestations of power play out: equity, access, participation and rights in America. So, what we can do to address it is first tell the truth about what we’re really arguing about. We are fighting, debating or protesting about competing world views, not differences of opinion, about what it means to be an American.
The historical notion of America as the world’s melting pot and land of opportunity presents attractive imagery and selective nostalgia for those whose ancestors immigrated to America from predominantly European countries. But if we are ever going to heal, we have to first acknowledge, now, that America has been dealing with the same problem in different forms for the handful of generations since the Civil War and 400 years prior during chattel slavery. Some of White America’s notions of white identity and nationalism are being pitted against a growing notion of multiculturalism. Multiculturalism in this context, i.e, the “browning” of America culturally is viewed by some in this country as an existential threat to their view of what it means to be an American.
From an African-American standpoint since we are talking about Black history at this moment, African-Americans are simply continuing to seek to manifest the promise of American citizenship in all of its forms, without reservation and without oppression, while admittedly having to still overcome some of the vestiges of our institutional experiences in America.
Q: What can we do to improve social injustice in our country today?
A: Tell our children the truth. Few will rally around solving a problem they don’t know exists or why they should care if it doesn’t affect them directly. I pray I’ll be able to go to my grave knowing I spent my life trying to role model the example I want to see in others and in doing so bring this country together.
Q: What does it mean to you to serve on the NFF Board?
A: Serving on the NFF Board is a labor of love for me. My service allows me to remain connected to the sport I love and to work with the incredible men and women who have supported the sport and ultimately its role in education, entertainment, and commerce.
Cheers & GO IRISH!