Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

The USFL was Trump’s dress rehearsal for the American carnage we’re witnessing today

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Donald Trump, owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals in the mid-1980s, shakes hands with Herschel Walker, then the league’s highest-profile star. Walker remains an insane Trump loyalist.
Donald Trump, owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals in the mid-1980s, shakes hands with Herschel Walker, then the league’s highest-profile star. Walker remains an insane Trump loyalist.
Photo: AP

When it comes to Donald Trump and all the batshit-crazy, Jonestown-esque nonsense he’s pulled over the past four years, the word “unprecedented” is often attached.

A quick Google search of “unprecedented” alongside the president’s name brings forth 29.5 million returns. His unprecedented moves to block the transition (SCMP.com). His unprecedented assault on the power of congress (The New Yorker). His unprecedented streak of silence (CNN). His unprecedented judicial overreach (BBC). There’s even a book, Donald Trump: An Unprecedented Presidency, written by Percy Leed (whose other titles include — and I’m not making this up — Play at Home with Elmo and Bubonic Plague: The Black Death).

In short, each of Donald Trump’s presidential actions seem to be unprecedented. Only, they’re not. Not even close.

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Some 3½ decades ago, before he was a politician and before he was a cackling celebrity TV douche, and even before he was a particularly world-famous real estate developer, Donald Trump was the owner of the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. For those who don’t remember (or weren’t alive), the USFL was an upstart spring alternative to the NFL. It debuted in 1983 with 12 teams, television deals with ABC and ESPN (just before the two became one and the same) and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Herschel Walker, as its marquee star. Though that first season had highs (quality football, breakout stars like Sam Mills, Bobby Hebert and Anthony Carter) and lows (lots of money losses, the realization that metal bleachers in Arizona get quite hot in May) it was widely regarded as a success.

Then, leading into the 1984 season, Trump purchased the Generals. He paid $10 million — $1.5 million more than the seller was asking for — and proceeded to offer a “How To Fuck Everything Up While Screwing Over All Your Peers” blueprint that, all these years later, is downright haunting.

Remember when Trump was accused of colluding with Russia? Well, back when he owned the Generals, Trump arranged for a private meeting with Pete Rozelle, the longtime NFL commissioner. The rendezvous was held inside a suite at Manhattan’s Pierre Hotel, and Trump said to Rozelle — unambiguously, enthusiastically — that he would help bury the USFL if it would land him a New York-based NFL franchise. Rozelle’s response:

Mr. Trump, as long as I or my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league.

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Illustration for article titled The USFL was Trump’s dress rehearsal for the American carnage we’re witnessing today

Remember when Trump insisted he would build a border wall that Mexico would pay for? In 1985, he signed Doug Flutie, the Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback out of Boston College, to a six-year, $8.3 million deal — the largest contract in pro football history. When asked by Generals colleagues whether Flutie was worth the dough, Trump replied, “Don’t worry — I signed him, but the other owners will take care of it for me.” He then wrote a letter to Harry Usher, the league’s commissioner, demanding that every team chip in. “I would appreciate your putting on the next agenda the allocation of Doug Flutie’s costs to each team,” he wrote on March 11, 1985. “The money will be returned when he plays at away games and fills additional seats.” Usher and Trump’s fellow owners ignored the request — just as Mexico never paid a dime for the wall.

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Remember when Trump stomped all over John McCain as he was dying of brain cancer? In 1984, Trump stomped all over John Bassett, the Tampa Bay Bandits owner and his most vocal critic, as he died of brain cancer. Remember when Trump began his assault on the “fake news”? From 1984-86, Trump would pick up the phone, disguise his voice and call sports reporters as “John Barron — Mr. Trump’s assistant.” Remember when Trump lied about, oh, everything? Inauguration crowd. A call from the Boy Scouts leader. Conversations with Vladimir Putin. In 1985, Trump told the other USFL owners that the league needed to move its season from the spring to the fall and directly face off against the NFL. He then said he had met with all three major network executives, and they were in agreement that fall USFL games would make “terrific” TV. “Lots of interest!” he boasted in a league meeting. “They all want the USFL in fall!” Lie — two network heads told Trump there was no buzz for the USFL as a fall entity. The third? Trump never even called.

On and on it goes — sinister parallel after sinister parallel after sinister parallel. Trump, the USFL owner, browbeating fellow multi-millionaire owners, just as Trump, the president, browbeats military generals. Trump, the USFL owner, sitting to do work as the national anthem plays, just as Trump, the president, turns flag loyalty into a patriotism litmus test. Trump, the idiot, asking whether a kickoff into the end zone is “a good thing,” just as Trump, the president, suggests injecting bleach could cure COVID-19.

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Yet as we approach today’s certification of the electoral college vote count before a joint session of Congress — and as we wonder what Mike Pence will do — there is one final parallel that should make us all shudder.

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Namely, Donald Trump will burn it all down.

In 1985, not long after Rozelle rejected his overtures, Trump convinced his fellow USFL owners that the league needed to both move to fall and sue the NFL for antitrust violations. He convinced his peers (just as he’s convinced too many Republicans to count) that he was looking out for their interests; that he was a team player and this was good for everyone.

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All the while, his plan was simple: If Rozelle won’t let me in the easy way, we’ll threaten the NFL with a season change and a lawsuit. That will get me the franchise I want in the league I want.

So the USFL, led by Trump, sued the NFL. Trump hired the attorneys. Trump starred as the key witness. Trump bragged and boasted his way through the 1986 trial, which lasted 42 days through most of the summer.

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And when the jury awarded the USFL a single dollar (trebled to $3, as is the law in an antitrust case), and jurors insisted Trump’s jarring dishonesty made the upstart league impossible to believe, Donald Trump walked off into the sunset, later dismissing the dead USFL as “small potatoes” and never again speaking to most of his fellow owners.

Thousands of jobs lost.

Thousands of sports dreams destroyed.

And a future president of the United States who could not have cared less.

Who paid no mind to the rubble.

Jeff Pearlman is the author of nine books, including “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL.”

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