Trump's forgotten charge: Killing the USFL

Finding it easier to own generals in Jersey than D.C.: Donald Trump (R) and head coach Walt Michaels (L) flank Doug Flutie, the Generals' top pick in 1985.
Finding it easier to own generals in Jersey than D.C.: Donald Trump (R) and head coach Walt Michaels (L) flank Doug Flutie, the Generals' top pick in 1985.

July 11, 2024, is already etched in history as the day former President Donald Trump will be sentenced for 34 felony convictions. Regardless of the outcome, I am reminded of July 29, 1986, when he actually won his battle in a New York court and lost the war.


Trump played a Kevorkian role when he urged the promising spring football league to sue the NFL for antitrust violations in hopes of forcing a merger. The pyrrhic victory — which awarded the USFL one dollar (trebled to three per antitrust rules) — marked the end for the original USFL.


Technically, it qualified as assisted suicide because some of the USFL team owners, however grudgingly, went along with the bombastic change-of-game plan and more or less agreed to move from the spring to the fall and take on the senior league.


Many understood this whole tragedy for what it was — Trump trying to gain vengeance for being shunned in his attempts to buy an NFL franchise (Baltimore Colts). He bought his way into the USFL (New Jersey Generals) a year after founder David Dixon launched the new league.


Dixon’s plan appeared to be based on sound economic, geographic, and seasonal considerations:

  • Teams play in large, NFL-caliber stadiums
  • Teams plan large pre-season promotional budgets for Year 1 to introduce the team to the local market
  • A tight players' salary cap of $1.8 million per team (the NFL introduced a salary cap in 1994).
  • A territorial draft, to better stock teams with familiar local collegiate stars to help the gate (similar to the proposed All-American Football League and used by the now-defunct Alliance of American Football).

But as soon as Trump had a voice in the young league, Dixon’s Dictates and the founder himself were gone. Trump teamed with fellow egomaniac and prodigious prevaricator J. William Oldenburg (owner of the Los Angeles Express) in an attempt to bullshit and buy credibility. They had plenty of the former but not nearly enough of the latter, especially after Oldenburg, caught up in a sprawling S&L scandal, and his claims of wealth were exposed in 1984 as fraudulent.


In the interest of transparency, I loved the original USFL. I was on the fringe in the 1960s when the American Football League elbowed its way into a merger with the National Football League. I covered football, both the AFL Oakland Raiders and the NFL San Francisco 49ers in the ‘60s and watched the leagues combine in 1970.


By the time the USFL arrived in 1983, I was up to my ears in football. I covered the 49ers’ newly minted Super Bowl champions of the 1981 season. I had closely covered the Raiders through two Super Bowls by then (XI and XV), but when the 49ers won SB XVI, demand for coverage at Hearst’s San Francisco Examiner was whack. Suddenly, everybody had expert opinions about what to write. I wrote four to six articles daily on the Niners even after rejecting 90 percent of the suggestions.


In 1982, the NFL endured a 57-day strike; the Raiders left for Los Angeles, and after the 49ers plummeted to 3-6 in the shortened season, coach Bill Walsh snuck out of town to visit team owner Eddie DeBartolo in Youngstown, Ohio, about his job. We snuck out on the same plane with Walsh to get an exclusive story. Spoiler alert: He kept the job.


All in all, it was an arduous three years covering two Super Bowl champions, a strike, an AWOL coach and a team that bolted town. Lots of serious stuff distracted from the fun of the game.


So, I was delighted to be assigned to cover the new USFL in February and March 1983. First, nobody cared what or if I wrote. Although slightly humbled, the Bay Area still basked in the afterglow of two consecutive Super Bowl victories, so the USFL and Oakland’s only remaining team, the Invaders, were marginalized.


USFL: No shortage of marquee players


Can you say paid vacation?


Most of all, I was reunited with some of the more basic attractions shared by those who love the game. Former NFL players, some of them in end-of-career denial, carpenters, plumbers, attorneys — a Mulligan Stew of humanity — just wanted to play football. If they made money, all the better.


Five USFL teams practiced in the Phoenix area, and there were several scrimmages a week. I watched from the sidelines or stands alongside All-Pro NFL players, pro and college coaches, and many scouts.


Talent? You betchya!


The USFL signed three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners straight out of college — Georgia running back Herschel Walker, Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie (New Jersey Generals) and Nebraska running back Mike Rozier (Pittsburgh Maulers).


Future Pro Football Hall of Fame members defensive end Reggie White of the University of Tennessee (Memphis Showboats), Oregon offensive tackle Gary Zimmerman (Los Angeles Express), and quarterbacks Jim Kelly of the University of Miami (Houston Gamblers) and BYU’s Steve Young (Express) began their professional careers with the USFL.


John Ralston, who built a Super Bowl team in Denver for his head-coach successor, Red Miller, got a second chance at being a pro football coach with the Invaders. He proved once again that, as a coach, he was a great administrator. Charlie Sumner took over as head coach in 1985 and led the Invaders to the USFL’s final championship game, a 28-24 loss to the Baltimore Stars. The outcome was sealed when Oakland fullback Tom Newton was penalized for spitting on a defender inside the 15-yard line in the final moments.


Both Ralston and Sumner offered me a job as player personnel director. I was already working on the Madden Football video game, but I helped by building a player personnel database for the USFL on an old Kaypro computer.


When the league folded, I inherited the Kaypro and the database, which were the foundations on which we built NFL Draft Scout. And four decades later, that brings us right here.


Small world, eh?


“Never saw how anyone liked him”


Dancing around the gritty details, the jury in that 1986 antitrust case agreed that the NFL engaged in monopolistic practices to encumber the USFL. But the jury decided that the USFL itself, misguided by Trump, led to its own demise by bull-rushing into a fall season and a head-on collision with the consequences.


In his book, Football for a Buck, Jeff Pearlman captured the thoughts and emotions in the buildup and aftermath of the trial:


As its third season came toward a close, the United States Football League filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, claiming it had established a monopoly with respect to television broadcasting rights. The suit was led by Donald Trump, the New Jersey Generals owner who was convinced his league would win and, as a result, force a merger with the NFL. Held over 42 days in the United States District Court in Manhattan, it was one of the most eagerly anticipated trials in the history of modern sports. And the USFL seemed to have a good shot – until Trump stepped up


"I covered that trial, and you had to hate Trump,” said New York radio personality Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo, “I just never saw how anyone liked him.”


Juror Patricia Sibilia could not get past two things: (1) that the USFL’s dysfunction was the greatest culprit in the league’s failings, and (2) Trump was awful.


“He was extremely arrogant and I thought that he was obviously trying to play the game. He wanted an NFL franchise … the USFL was a cheap way in.”


When the damages award was read aloud — "one dollar" — Trump was sitting next to John Mara, the son of New York Giants owner Wellington. John pulled out a $1 bill from his wallet and handed it to Trump. Although, as an antitrust case, that was tripled to $3, and the NFL was forced to pay the USFL 5.5 million in attorney fees, the USFL was done.


We thoroughly enjoyed the original USFL, and it is unfortunate that its robust history was diluted by recent leagues that borrowed that same name—ironically with the NFL’s help — but never revived that great spirit.

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