America at Large: Trump crossed line early with foray into gridiron

US presidential candidate’s move into pro sport largely an attention-seeking exercise

 Donald Trump with new New Jersey Generals  signing Herschel Walker in 1983. Photograph:  Sporting News via Getty Images

Donald Trump with new New Jersey Generals signing Herschel Walker in 1983. Photograph: Sporting News via Getty Images

 

Shortly after filing an anti-trust lawsuit against the NFL, Donald Trump assured reporters with his usual brio, “There’s virtually no chance of us losing this.” It was the summer of 1986 and as proprietor of the New Jersey Generals, Trump had led his fellow owners from the upstart United States Football League (USFL) into an expensive legal showdown with the country’s more established gridiron institution. Although there were others involved, he figured so prominently that in the closing argument of a 10-week trial, the NFL’s lawyer Frank Rothman told a New York courtroom, “This is not the case of a little guy versus the big guy, of David versus Goliath, it’s more like Donald versus Goliath.”

The USFL owners were seeking $1.69 billion in damages but having found that the NFL indeed violated anti-trust law, the jury awarded compensation of just $3.76 (with interest) because they concluded that most of the plaintiff’s problems had been self-inflicted. Upon hearing the verdict, Trump dashed from the building, although, typically, he later claimed the result was actually “a great moral victory”.

Four years into its existence, the already ailing league never recovered from the setback and went into liquidation after just three seasons.

Evocative

“I still feel and will always feel that his [Trump’s] ambitions – his personal ambitions – were what sunk the league,” said Burt Reynolds, co-owner of the USFL”s Tampa Bay Bandits, in the evocative ESPN documentary Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

Even in as picaresque a career as Trump’s, his brief stint in charge of the Generals offers a revealing glimpse into the peculiar way he conducts business.

“From day one, the NFL painted me as a vicious, greedy, Machiavellian billionaire, intent only on serving my selfish ends at everyone else’s expense,” wrote Trump of his experience, a summation that will sound eerily familiar to the American electorate.

Second Captains

His move into professional sport had been motivated at least in part by its ability to get him attention. He marvelled at how the hiring of a coach or signing of a big- name quarterback garnered so much more media than any of the mega-property deals he was orchestrating. Then, as now, it was all about making a splash, generating maximum publicity and always, always amplifying his own personal brand.

“He was the air pump into the tyre,” said Charley Steiner, who commentated on games for the Generals. “He gave the league the air it needed, elevated it to another level, pumped it up real good, and kept pumping till it exploded.”

With one eye always on potential headlines, he brought the fledgling league what passed for ersatz glamour in early ’80s Manhattan. That Andy Warhol was a judge at the Generals’ cheerleaders try-outs held in the basement of Trump Tower lent some faux artistic legitimacy to that demeaning process. In a more telling detail, many of the successful candidates later walked out in protest at the club endangering their welfare by making them do appearances at dive bars while wearing skimpy costumes.

In an era when cable television was starting to explode, the USFL had opened for business in 1983, designed to cash in on the new channels’ need for content and the burgeoning national appetite for gridiron. The idea was to run a pro league in the spring to fill the annual vacuum left by the NFL once the Super Bowl had ended. After a promising debut season during which fans embraced genuine stars like running back Herschel Walker and innovations such as the two-point conversion, the ability to challenge refereeing decisions, and the fact players were encouraged to excessively celebrate touchdowns, Trump arrived.

At 37, then very much the crown prince rather than the clown prince of New York real estate, he bought the Generals and immediately announced his desire to move to an autumn schedule in direct competition with the country’s national obsession.

“If God had wanted football in the spring,” said Trump, “he wouldn’t have created baseball.”

For a league whose very raison d’etre was to provide an alternative to the NFL, this was a curious and ultimately fatal aspiration. After all, how could the neophytes compete with the superior quality and long-standing tradition of the older league? The short answer is that it couldn’t, but Trump didn’t care. He merely wanted to make enough of a nuisance of himself to get the NFL to eventually absorb the USFL, a move that would instantly quadruple the value of his initial investment.

“He’s trying to get into the NFL on the cheap!” said Art Modell, then owner of the Cleveland Browns.

Hemorrhaging money

At a time when an NFL franchise cost between $40m and $50m, Trump paid $9m for the Generals, although he later tried to convince people the purchase price was around half that, a move that seriously damaged the financial credibility of a league that was hemorrhaging money. Although talk of building a domed stadium in his native Queens proved fanciful, he did splurge to get marquee names to boost the box office, shattering the USFL salary cap.

In a particularly cheeky move that prefaced the way he’s often tried to cheapskate his campaign for the White House, he wanted his competitors to pay part of the $8m six-year contract he’d given Boston College’s iconic quarterback Doug Flutie. The sort of ludicrous suggestion that perhaps only a character who thinks he can get Mexico to pay for a wall across the southern border of America could possibly make.

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