The USFL: Three Years, Three Dollars

I'm going to spout off a list of names for you. Ever hear of Tom Brady? Peyton Manning? Jerry Rice? Brett Favre? Barry Sanders? Dick Butkus? Of course you have. You don't need to look them up. You already know them, even if you have only a passing familiarity with the NFL. Every one of those players is either enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, or will soon be enshrined there. Unfortunately, the commutative principle does not apply here. When you hear about the NFL, you don't think about Joe Montana, Rob Gronkowski, Adam Vinatieri, or Aaron Rodgers. If you're Joe Public, you think about the controversies; you think about the multiple instances of domestic abuse; you think about the epidemic of concussions, the CTE destroying the lives of former players; and you think about players kneeling during the national anthem, and the time-wasting debates over whether this is appropriate. Yes, the NFL is in dire straits right now, and not the good kind like you want

It used to be even worse.

Back in 1983, the NFL product just wasn't very good, and it wasn't easy to put your finger on precisely *why* the game was so uninteresting at the time. It could just be that the players weren't very exciting. Don't get me wrong, there were plenty of interesting players of the era, but none of them played for the Patriots, so who cares?  I'm an NFL junkie, a hardcore historian who used to research the NFL Hall of Fame in my spare time as a middle schooler (in addition to other bizarre hobbies), and I still had to look up who won the Super Bowl for that season. Turns out it was the L.A. Raiders. You know, the Raiders led by a 36-year-old Jim Plunkett and a baker's dozen of Coke cans? (Alright, in fairness, I looked it up and they had stars like Marcus Allen, Cliff Branch, Lyle Alzado, Howie Long, Ted Hendricks, Mike Haynes, and Ray Guy, but more than half these guys were in their mid-30s by this point.) 

Once quoted as saying "I don't think there's anyone on Earth that can kick my ass."

The time was right for an upstart league, but if you have a good idea, you really want to put some time and careful thought into it; any good startup requires patience. David Dixon, who conceptualized the United States Football League (USFL), did so in 1965, and held onto that idea like a prized ham. It would take nearly twenty years for his idea to finally come to be born, but the prolonged gestation period would serve him well. Everyone knows that the hardest time for sports fans is the time between the NFL draft and the NFL preseason; this could be a major opportunity for another football league to take advantage and perhaps rake in some cash. The real key would be television exposure - but that's not really part of this story. This is about something else.

In 1983, the USFL quickly whipped up some investors, coaches, players, and television stations to put together its league during the spring and summer. The games were played at various stadiums (or, as the word goes in Latin, stadia) found around the country. It was a shaky start - there were ownership disputes, Boston could hardly find a stadium, and potential legal action from the Canadian government of all things - and the league year progressed as many inaugural league years do, i.e., poorly. Teams had to move around, they were slow to accrue fans, stadiums closed, and ownership shuffled around. Nevertheless, the players were pretty damned decent, and the fans were attending in person (a very big deal), and the tv ratings were even better than expected - but like I said, this story isn't about that. This story is about abject failure.

Donald J. Trump, a future failed casino owner, reality show host, and US President, purchased the New Jersey Generals (the USFL had lousy team names) in the 1983-1984 offseason. He immediately went out and purchased a bunch of NFL stars at the time, including Brian Sipe, the veritable Josh McCown of his era. The 1984 and 1985 seasons continued as ever, with coaches being fired after one week, rookies being signed to the largest contracts in football history, teams folding or merging, and - devastatingly - owners pulling out. A change was needed, and not the kind of change that involved Trump signing 5'10", 190 lb. Doug Flutie to the biggest pro football contract and highest rookie contract of any sport. 

Yeah, he actually did that.

Trump and a man named Eddie Einhorn, owner of the Chicago Blitz, argued that they should move directly to a fall schedule to compete directly agains the NFL. See, in free market-based capitalism, everything is a competition. The NFL competed with debates and political talk shows last year. It competes with Sunday shows. The NFL even competes, in a very nearly infinitesimal way, with the MLB sometimes. See, that's the thing about the corporate world: you need to pick your battles by focusing on what the biggest threat could be. This is why wrestlers like Kyle Snyder don't need to worry about scrubs like Chris Field knocking them down anytime soon. Sure, I'd love to consider myself competition for Snyder, but I'd also love to live in a dogbone shaped satellite and make fun of garbage movies with robot buddies, and despite that being entirely improbable (at least until MIT comes through with the grant money I requested), it's still somehow more likely than me, a gangly blogger with dry spaghetti arms and Buddy Holly glasses, ever being a significant challenge to Snyder, perhaps the most dominant wrestler in the world right now. 

Anyone with a passing familiarity of the NFL understands how much of a monstrous money-making machine it is, and that competing directly could never take it down. To Trump and Einhorn's credit, that was never really the idea. The real idea here would be to show that the USFL teams were good enough to siphon some of the viewers the NFL had, which would let the USFL teams be admitted into the NFL, thus doubling the original investment and getting a hell of a lot more money in marketing deals. Fun fact: Trump had wanted badly to be an NFL owner before getting involved with the USFL, and had been turned away. He wasn't happy about that, and he hadn't forgotten it. Despite the reservations of older and wiser owners (and a consulting firm - but hell, what do they know?), the USFL decided to go ahead and...file an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. See, remember when I said this story wasn't about television? I'm a charlatan and I'm never to be trusted. Today, if an upstart football league aimed to start games during the fall season, the tv execs would likely laugh them out of their palacial conference rooms. However, the networks in 1985 were all for the idea, and had contracts just waiting. The USFL...either didn't know this, or didn't care, or wasn't sure what they were mad about. I don't think this even had anything to do with Trump; it was just a bogus way to handle things altogether. That being said, the New York real estate mogul was not particularly popular with his fellow owners.


Basically, the USFL claimed that the NFL was trying to destroy the USFL by withholding their access to stadiums and television rights. As mentioned above, the television rights claims was baloney, and the USFL was collapsing under its own weight due to patently idiotic decisions. If you've got a Pittsburgh team, you can't play in Pittsburgh while the Pittsburgh Steelers are there. That's baffling. Baffling. Even more baffling was that the USFL was technically right in their claim.

No kidding, the NFL was found guilty of being a predatory menace to all other professional football leagues (they're basically the Disney of football), and they had an illegal monopoly. However, the USFL's suffering was its own fault, as described above. So basically the USFL got a dollar out of it three dollars out of it due to antitrust laws, and the league - which had been staking its entire future on this one outcome - folded immediately afterward. Even funnier was the fact that the jury incorrectly assumed that the judge could increase the award. Enjoy your three dollars! Don't spend it all on one escort!

Now, who's to blame? Sure, it seems to easy to pin everything on Trump, as most have been doing. Hell, a lot of people seem to think that his current stance against the NFL players currently kneeling during the national anthem is some sort of revenge for the demise of the USFL. In reality, that's nothing more than a slimeball move to appeal to a rabid, sycophantic base that will defend his every word and action. In reality, there's more to the USFL's demise than Trump. The league really wasn't going to last much longer anyway; several players were planning on going to the NFL anyway, and the league wasn't making any money (although the investors knew that going in; it was going to take time for anyone involved to turn a profit). The USFL would have a lasting influence; players like Gary Zimmerman, Steve Young, and Jim Kelly would all go on to have Hall of Fame careers with the NFL, and the NFL even adopted the two point conversion that the USFL used. Nevertheless, it was the penultimate nail in the coffin, just one of the many American pro football leagues that would come and go in the futile attempt to stand up to the jock in gym class. Just like the AAFC, the AFL, and the WFL before it, as well as the XFL afterward, the NFL withstood the challengers. Some wonder if the NFL can withstand the challenges of protests, widespread domestic abuse, and CTE. To them I say: it has already withstood the powers of bureaucracy. Is there a more powerful force on earth?

In 1990, the USFL finally received their damages check for $3.76; the 76¢ was for unpaid interest. To this date, the check has not yet been cashed.


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