After reading Esquire's "How Donald Trump Destroyed a Football League" and again watching ESPN's 30 for 30 Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?, I've been going through nostalgia for something I never experienced. In hindsight, the United States Football League seemed like it'd be cool: Jim Kelly, Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Mouse Davis* in spring games on ESPN. I don't remember actually watching much (any?) USFL when it was active. I had likely kept football in my mind as a fall sport and perhaps I was actually busy studying in college when the games were on (or watching baseball.) Maybe I thought I'd watch USFL games after I graduated from college, maybe I figured it would merge with the NFL at some point.
But the story of what happened to the USFL is instructive. Donald Trump had bought the New Jersey Generals after their initial season and started spending money to try to make them the best team. While they already had Herschel Walker, they splurged on Brian Sipe and other players. Soon, Trump yearned to be accepted as equal of NFL owners. He pushed for the USFL to drop its spring schedule and schedule games for the fall. There is a thread running through the Esquire article and in the 30 for 30 that Trump would never have been accepted by the NFL owners, with Trump being a made-it nouveau riche dude like Al Czervik in Caddyshack but without Al's joyful glee or gauche sense of humor. But the USFL never played fall games. Instead, they - led by Trump - banked on being able to sue the NFL under antitrust law, hoping for a large settlement to keep their league going (they had made the mistake of expanding too soon, counting on expansion fees from new owners) or a merger that would save some of the franchises.
I remember being in the student union as school started at UND in 1986 and somebody asked if the USFL would be playing that fall as they had announced that they would. This person was told by another that no, they would not be competing head-to-head with the NFL, but they had sued the NFL and had won. How much were they awarded? A dollar, somebody else said. No, I said, it was more than that. They looked at me. I had been reading the stories in the paper about the lawsuit, certainly more intrigued with the legal action than I ever had been with any USFL game. I mean, Al Davis finally got a chance for a true heel turn and to stick the knife into Pete Rozelle's back! Antitrust violation is triple damages, I said, they were awarded three dollars. One guy said: "Only you would notice something like that."
New Jersey Generals play-by-play man Charlie Steiner in the Esquire article: "He was the Pied Piper and these other desperate owners went along for the ride. It all happened in a flash. Then the USFL was dead and gone and he moved on to the next thing, which was Atlantic City. Which didn't work out too well, either."**
Earlier this summer, I bought a USFL shirt because I dug the color and was still slapping myself over that "they will get three dollars" antitrust comment thirty years ago. (Hey I only got a C in business law sophomore year, gotta celebrate someway somehow.) I now realize that wearing my USFL shirt is a protest of sorts. Because what does the long-gone USFL tell us? That Trump will push some fantasy about how he can make things quickly better and eventually some kind of ruin - three dollars plus minimal interest, multiple bankruptcies, turning a major political party into a punchline and refuge for white nationalists - inevitably follows. Trump? He could give a single. He told the 30 for 30 director after an interview that the USFL was "small potatoes". In the Esquire article, the director says that Trump sent him a note after receiving a copy of the documentary that said: "You are a loser."
*Mouse Davis was head coach at Division I-AA powerhouse Portland State in the late seventies. They were nationally ranked and came to Grand Forks to play UND. My Dad and I were in the stands as then-Division II UND beat Neil Lomax and his Vikings. Time to time when the Cardinals are playing in the NFL, I go onto Twitter and make a Neil Lomax reference.
** In the 30 for 30, after being told of Steiner's criticisms, Trump - twenty-plus years after the Generals folded - makes a cryptic remark about how Steiner should still be "loyal."