Coming October 2022: "The Last Folk Hero: The Life and Myth of Bo Jackson"

We have been here before

I have seen this one before.

Donald Trump.

Potential lawsuits.

Seemingly intelligent people (powerful, wealthy people) falling under his sway.

A death dive to nowhere.

I have seen this one before.

In case you don’t know, two years ago I released a book, “Football for a Buck,” that chronicled the rise and fall of the USFL (United States Football League), a spring gridiron experiment that lasted from 1983-85. The USFL remains my all-time favorite sports league—amazing uniforms, sweet names, players receiving second, third, fourth and fifth chances to make it in sports. It was wild and wacky and indisputably entertaining, and I wanted it to last forever.

Sadly it died. In large part because of Donald Trump.

He bought a team, the New Jersey Generals, after the debut season, and from that first press conference (held in the lobby of Trump Tower), Trump was the loudest, brashest, most headline-obsessed owner in all of professional sports. He bragged about his wealth, his girlfriends, his projects. He begged for headlines, then begged for bigger headlines. Mostly, though, what he wanted was for ownership of the New Jersey Generals to result in ownership of an NFL franchise.

Yes, you read that correctly: Donald Trump’s goal—a not particularly hidden one—was to force the older football league’s hand and grant him entry into the world’s most exclusive club: NFL ownership.

So Trump did everything he could. He tried buying the Baltimore Colts—and failed. He begged Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner, for a team—and failed. Shortly after purchasing the Generals, he literally met privately with Rozelle in a Manhattan hotel suite and said, bluntly, “I will help destroy the USFL if you give me a New York City NFL team.”

Rozelle told Trump he was a conman and a fraud. “As long as I am involved in the NFL,” he said, “you won’t be.”

Then, Donald Trump decided to sue.

This is 35 years ago, well before Donald Trump was known for suing and suing and suing and suing. As the owner of the USFL’s most important franchise (without New York/New Jersey’s TV sway, there was no league), Trump carried extra weight in league meetings. So when, in 1984, he started up with, “We need to move to fall and challenge the NFL directly,” well, the words carried weight. When he said it again and again, the words carried even more weight. Trump asked the other owners if he could gauge the fall/USFL interest of the three major TV networks, and when NBC, ABC and CBS all assured him they would never televise the league were it not playing in the spring—well, Trump did what Trump does. He lied, and told the other owners there was “amazing interest” is us moving to fall.

Now, you would think the other owners would hate this idea. Unlike Trump, whose plan was to build a stadium (or, really, have a stadium built for him) in midtown Manhattan, the vast majority of USFL teams played in cities already occupied by NFL franchises. Could the Pittsburgh Maulers survive in the same season as the Pittsburgh Steelers? Could the Houston Gamblers compete directly with the Houston Oilers? The Los Angeles Express with the Los Angeles Raiders? The Michigan Panthers with the Detroit Lions? The Chicago Blitz with the Chicago Bears? Of course not. But—because Trump is persuasive and a bully and blessed (cursed?) with the ability to have people regularly violate their own interests—he talked the other USFL owners into not only agreeing to move to fall, but to standing behind a USFL-filed anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL.

Trump held a press conference announcing the suit, and told none of the other owners. Trump filed the suit in New York City, and told none of the other owners. Trump plotted with the USFL attorneys he hired, and told none of the other owners. Trump decided he should be the star witness, and told none of the other owners.

But—with the exception of John Bassett, owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits—none of the other owners would stand up to Donald Trump. They were rich, they were powerful, they were successful. But they were also intimidated and cowardly.

So the trial happened, and shortly thereafter the USFL (winners of $3 in a laughable suit that went terribly wrong) ended operations and died.

Its owners lost millions of dollars.

And their dignity.