The USFL: Trump’s Dry Run of Destruction

The laundry list of things Donald J. Trump has purposefully or unwittingly attempted to destroy is a long one—democracy, journalism, truth, COVID victims, sexually abused women, immigrants, voters, and election workers for starters—but I wasn’t prepared for reading about one of his early casualties: the United States Football League.

Jeff Pearlman, author of Showtime, The Bad Guys Won, and other entertaining sports books, published Football for a Buck, the Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL four years ago, and besides being a loving testimony to the spring experiment that existed from 1983 to 1985, it is a searing account of how Trump blustered his way in as owner of the New Jersey Generals and in less than three years proceeded to destroy the league. If anything, it was a blueprint, or dry run for what he would soon begin doing to America.

The parallels with what Trump has done since 2016 are just astonishing, and I can’t tell you how many times my mouth dropped open reading this book. Starting a new football league in the spring was a bit of a long shot, but the eclectic group of rich owners were dedicated to trying to make it work, and were opening football markets and finding some early TV coverage and success with the Philadelphia Stars (15-3 in their first year), Michigan Panthers, Chicago Blitz, Denver Gold, Oakland Invaders and Boston Breakers, among others. 

But when Commissioner Chet Simmons and the other owners agreed to let Donald Trump talk his way into the league with his New Jersey Generals and star running back Herschel Walker (hmmm…), red flags soon began sprouting up. As Pearlman writes, “People paying a visit to Trump’s office on the 26th floor of Trump Tower didn’t merely sit in a bland reception area, waiting to meet the big man. No, they first had to endure an eight-minute film that chronicled the greatness of Donald J. Trump, New York icon and all-around amazing guy at absolutely everything.” This included an actual sales pitch for Trump Tower condos.

Unbeknownst to the Commissioner and other owners, Trump had a secret plan: to build up his Generals into a football powerhouse, then goad the USFL to move their games from Spring to Fall and take on the NFL head-on with the goal of nabbing himself an NFL franchise. Pittsburgh Maulers GM George Heddleston recalled an owner’s meeting in New York when this all became obvious:

“And then Donald Trump walks in. And he’s bombastic from the start. He’s loud, he clearly wants to be noticed. Just a jerk, and a jerk on purpose.He sits down, and the meeting starts and he’s reading the New York Times. We’re meeting, voting on things, and he’s reading the newspaper. Finally, we get ready to hold a vote and Donald holds open the New York Times, stands to get attention, talks over whoever’s speaking, and says, ‘Look at this! Look at this! I build a skyscraper and nobody cares! I sign some obscure defensive back and I get three paragraphs in the Times. That’s why I bought the Generals!” As he continued later in a separate meeting, “I don’t know about the rest of you people and I don’t know how much money you guys have, but I have the money to get into the NFL, and that’s where I plan on being.”

“Looking back,”added Heddleston, “I believe he started to single-handedly take the league down that day. Nobody in that room wanted to move the USFL to fall. Nobody. Not one person. But there was something about Donald Trump…”

There sure was, and still is. For the nearly 40 years since then, he’s been able to con people into almost anything, voting for him politically the most unfortunate. As Pearlman writes, “the optimism that carried the league through tough times was slowly being replaced by the whispers of a charlatan, dead set on getting his way.” He used his fake persona “John Barron” to call newspapers and plant stories about the USFL planning to move to fall, even though no one had sanctioned it yet. 

Eventually, though, they caved. “Even though the owners were very powerful businessmen, when Trump came into the room he dominated.” His ultimate Big Plan was to file a huge monopoly lawsuit against the NFL, expecting at the least a huge settlement, or that the USFL would win outright and fold teams into the bigger league and get a slice of the fall money pie, Trump emerging with his own NFL franchise.

When the lawsuit was first announced, Trump stood alongside famous McCarthy hearing  lawyer Roy Cohn, but when Trump learned Roy was dying from AIDS, he dumped him for another nightmare attorney, “Heavy Hitter Harvey” Myerson, who was also in Trump’s pocket. Over the trial’s 42 days in 1986, Myerson never called any of the USFL owners to testify because he was worried the NFL might depose them. “The real reason, as suspected by several owners: Trump craved the spotlight and thought his peers to be obstacles toward dominance.” Myerson was turning it into Trump vs. the NFL.

Trump then lied in his testimony about things NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle had told him, botching up his own strategy, and after the NFL was confirmed of having violated the law, the jury awarded the USFL damages of…wait for it…one dollar. With his ego alone, Trump had systematically killed the league.

It took me a while to understand how this guy ever became President. Now I believe it had a lot to do with him tapping into this country’s racist undercurrent that bubbled to the surface after two Barack Obama victories, but still…weren’t the south and midwest historically wary of loudmouth New York con men? Letting this ignorant egomaniac play owner in your football league is bad enough, but to believe he can run a country? Ten seconds listening to Donald Trump and I wouldn’t hire him to run an Arby’s.

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