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Trump's Forgotten Failure: How He Helped Ruin a Football League

Real estate magnates Stephen Ross, left, and Donald Trump, right, in 1985 at a New York City press conference about their agreement to merge the Houston Gamblers and New Jersey Generals football franchises. Commissioner Harry L. Usher, center, commissioner of the now defunct United States Football League, announced the agreement. (Marty Lederhandler / AP)

Two weeks ago, on the Sunday HBO show “Last Week Tonight,” comedian John Oliver did what the mainstream media has largely failed to do — namely, to counter Donald Trump’s narrative of business success by listing the real estate mogul’s long string of failures:

“Trump Shuttle, which no longer exists; Trump Vodka, which was discontinued; Trump magazine, which folded; Trump World magazine, which also folded; Trump University, over which he’s being sued; and of course, the travel-booking site GoTrump.com …” as well as Trump Steaks and, in 2006, “just before the entire mortgage industry collapsed,” Trump Mortgage.

The segment got so much attention that Trump responded by attempting to deny the truth about each failure, even offering steaks to an audience at $50 each, despite the fact that the trademark on Trump Steaks had been canceled in 2014.

Oliver is British, so it’s understandable that he might not be as knowledgeable about Trump’s failure in sports, particularly his disastrous involvement with the United States Football League in the 1980s. I was there and saw it firsthand.

The USFL — conceived by New Orleans businessman David Dixon — began in 1983. Back then, New Jersey’s entrant into the new league, a team called the Generals — which ended that first season with a dismal 6-12 record — was owned by oil tycoon J. Walter Duncan.

But Duncan had no intention of moving to the East Coast from Oklahoma just to see his team play, and after deciding that he couldn’t keep a tight rein on the team from a distance, he sold the Generals to the 37-year-old Trump.

“I could have bought an NFL club for $40 million or $50 million,” Trump told The New York Times in 1984, “but it’s established, and you would just see it move laterally. Not enough to create there.” His actions, however, seemed to suggest that an NFL franchise was what he had really wanted. It is widely assumed that Trump bought into the USFL as a way of getting into the NFL through a merger, as American Football League owners had done when their league merged with the NFL in 1970.

At a press conference I covered for The Village Voice when he bought the team, Trump said, “I’m going to build this team just like I built Trump Tower and the Grand Hyatt. The only way is first class. If I have a choice of Park Avenue or Lexington, I take Park.”

Even if Trump didn’t end up keeping any of those promises, he at least made headlines. First, by firing head coach Chuck Fairbanks and hiring former New York Jets coach Walt Michaels. Then he paid big money to acquire defensive back Gary Barbaro of the Kansas City Chiefs and quarterback Brian Sipe of the Cleveland Browns. Both hires were costly mistakes. Barbaro had been an All-Pro from 1980 to 1982, but by 1983 he was 29, a somewhat advanced age for DBs.

Sipe was an even more obvious blunder. Clearly, Trump was impressed by his having been the NFL’s MVP in 1980, but by the end of the 1983 NFL season Sipe was looking at 35 and had had three consecutive bad seasons, with a total of 47 touchdown passes and 56 interceptions over those three years.

Amazingly, Trump made an even bigger bonehead decision in 1984 by signing Boston College QB Doug Flutie to replace Sipe. Flutie had been a sensational college player, winning the Heisman Trophy earlier that year, but at only 5 feet 10 inches tall and about 180 pounds, Flutie was too small to be the kind of quarterback that the Generals needed if Trump was going to achieve his goal of using a winning team to break into the NFL. (Flutie would eventually play 92 games on four NFL teams, with limited success.)

Maybe none of this would have mattered if Trump had found the right coach. After buying the team, he had made a serious bid to lure Don Shula away from the Miami Dolphins. Shula — who would retire in 1995 with a record 328 wins, six Super Bowl games and two Super Bowl victories — wanted $1 million and an apartment in Trump Tower. Trump agreed to the salary but not to the apartment. The deal fell through: In October 1983, Trump shot his mouth off and told the media Shula’s asking price. The coach immediately withdrew from further negotiations.

In truth, the Generals didn’t do badly under Trump, finishing 14-4 in their second season and 11-7 in their third and final year; both seasons ended with first-round playoff defeats. Where Trump made his worst miscalculation and his biggest failure, though, was in thinking that he could bully his way into the NFL. As the actor Burt Reynolds, who owned a piece of the USFL’s Tampa Bay Bandits, put it in the ESPN documentary “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”: “His dream was to be in the National Football League, and they didn’t want him.”When the American Football League merged with the NFL in 1970, the AFL had been able to negotiate with the established league because it had brought several new markets to pro football’s TV packages. The AFL had some good teams and was competition for the NFL, and the NFL eliminated that competition by taking them in.

In contrast, the USFL was hardly a threat to the NFL, and it never seemed to occur to Trump that the TV audience for his New Jersey Generals was already supporting two NFL teams, the Giants (who, after all, had played in New Jersey since 1976) and the Jets (who moved to New Jersey in 1984). How many fans wanted a third team?

But the USFL hung on, rapidly expanding as its teams played two seasons in the spring, the time of year when there was not a lot going on in the other sports. The league had television contracts and seemed to be building. But Trump would not abide by the spring schedule. “If God had wanted football in the spring,” Trump said, in one of his most widely repeated quotes, “he wouldn’t have created baseball.”

Trump was relentless in his pressure to move the league to a fall schedule. He finally succeeded in bullying his fellow USFL owners into switching from a spring to a fall schedule for the 1986 season, putting them in direct competition with the NFL. It apparently never occurred to him that if God had wanted the USFL to play football in the autumn, he wouldn’t have created the NFL.

But the USFL never made it to the fall of 1986. When the NFL owners remained adamant that there would be no merger, Trump fell back on his usual tactic — a lawsuit, this time against the NFL for violating antitrust laws.

But USFL v. NFL was a disaster. Yes, the jury decided that the NFL had been guilty of monopolistic practices, but it also found that the USFL had spent lavishly and foolishly and was often guilty of mismanagement, all of which had had more to do with the league’s relative lack of success than the NFL’s monopolistic practices.

The USFL was awarded a humiliating $1 in damages, and under antitrust laws, the sum was tripled and interest was added. The final award was $3.76. The check has never been cashed.

The NFL — which paid more than $5.6 million in attorneys’ fees and court costs — had called Trump’s bluff. He had no other guns to fire, and the USFL, now more than $160 million in debt, folded four days after the verdict was announced.

Twenty-three years later, Trump talked to Michael Tollin, director of “Small Potatoes,” rationalizing his defeat by the NFL by saying, “We had a great lawsuit.”

Could the USFL have made it if cooler heads had prevailed? In the film, the league’s first commissioner, Chet Simmons, laments the untimely death of the Tampa Bay Bandits’ managing general partner, John Bassett, who died of a brain cancer in 1986 at the age of 47. Bassett was perhaps the most respected owner in the league, and his views had generally clashed with those of Trump.

“John was always logical because of his background, and Trump was illogical,” Chet Simmons said, adding that Trump “couldn’t care less about these other guys” in the USFL.

“Why did he buy into the league?” sportswriter Bill Simmons, who covered the USFL from its birth to its demise, asked in the film. “Trump with the USFL has always struck me as somebody that couldn’t get into the NFL, and he was so desperate to own a football team, this was the next thing. It was like … all the Beamers [BMW automobiles] that he wanted were sold out, so he goes to the Saab dealership. Says, ‘Give me a Saab. Give me any Saab.’ And then he complains about the Saab.”

Retired ABC sportscaster Keith Jackson best summarized Trump’s involvement in the death of the USFL when he told The New York Times in February: “He was a dynamic figure, but he was dynamic on behalf of the Donald Trump interests, not the whole league.”

The New York Daily News’ Hank Gola has even said that Trump took down the USFL with “a Custer-like charge.”

Two years ago, Trump was still rationalizing. In 2014, as he made a bid to buy the Buffalo Bills, he told Gola, “Without me, the USFL would have been dead immediately. It was a league that was failing badly.”

In fact, the USFL had been doing quite well before Trump’s arrival, having national TV contracts and improving attendance. (Trump still hasn’t cracked the NFL; his pursuit of the Bills only resulted in his sitting in the owner’s box.)

Craig James, who played for the USFL’s Washington Federals and the NFL’s New England Patriots and later became a commentator for ESPN, reckoned at the end of the documentary: “If they had been patient and just stayed the course, stayed the business plan as a group, I think the league would have made it” — without Trump.

Allen Barra
Contributor
Allen Barra writes about sports for The Wall Street Journal and regularly contributes to TheAtlantic.com and Salon.com. Barra has authored many books including “Mickey and Willie: Mantle and Mays, The…
Allen Barra

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