In Football for a Buck, author Jeff Pearlman looks back on the three wild seasons of the United States Football League (1983–1985), from the big superstar contracts and innovative offenses to the not-insignificant amount of cocaine involved. He also details the league’s ill-fated decision to move from spring to fall and go head-to-head with the NFL — a push led by the owner of the USFL’s New Jersey Generals, Donald Trump.
The USFL was already struggling by that point, but the attempt to switch seasons, coupled with an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, was the coup de grâce. The USFL suspended operations after winning a mere $1 reward from the lawsuit (tripled to $3 under antitrust laws), and never played a single fall game.
According to Pearlman, Trump’s true motives had nothing to do with strengthening the fledgling league. He wanted to own an NFL team, and thought the possibility of a merger offered him a backdoor to NFL ownership. “It was always about getting in the NFL,” says Pearlman. “It was almost like a big scam from the very beginning, and nobody realized it.” Pearlman spoke with Intelligencer about how Trump doomed the USFL, the origins of his feud with the NFL, and why he would have actually made a great NFL owner.
You make the case that the USFL–NFL trial might have gone differently if Trump and his lawyer had stayed out of the spotlight. Did Trump doom the league because he was bad at hiring lawyers?
Partially, yes. He hired the absolute two worst attorneys to represent the league. First Roy Cohn, who was not only sick, but so poorly thought of. And then he hired the one guy who was even worse thought of, Harvey Myerson. These two bombastic, arrogant [lawyers]. And he picked the wrong venue, New York. There were a lot of other places that would have been more sympathetic toward cases like that. He had terrible timing, because a year and a half later the NFL had a strike, and that would have been a great time for the USFL to pounce. So there were a lot of misguided, rush-to-action moves by Trump that doomed everybody.
Trump’s desire to own an NFL team seemed to motivate everything he did. Did he really think that playing in the fall was viable and would lead to a merger, or did he know it wouldn’t work but was trying to set some other series of events in motion?
Obviously I can’t be in his head, but it’s one of two things, based on everyone I’ve talked to. Number one, I don’t think he ever thought there was going to be a USFL in the fall. I think even more likely than that was that he never really thought it through. The planning for fall was awful. It wasn’t like, Here’s what’s going to happen, we’re going to move to fall, and this franchise is going to go here, and these franchises are going to go here. None of that. It was like, We’re gonna go to fall, and somehow it’ll work itself out. I just think his whole thing was, we’re going to talk about moving to fall, it’s going to threaten the NFL, they’re going to be nervous about it, and they’re just going to absorb a bunch of teams.
Let’s say Trump did get an NFL team, either through a merger or a purchase of the Buffalo Bills, which he later considered. And let’s say he owned that team for a while — a lot longer than he owned the Generals. What kind of owner would he have been in the long term?
A great owner. I mean, I think he’s a terrible president, but he’s a perfect sports owner. He is Jerry Jones, he’s Mark Cuban. He would annoy the hell out of the other owners, but that doesn’t really matter. He would spend a lot of money. That’s the whole weird thing of it all: He was a great USFL owner, if you played for him or worked for him. He paid you well, he treated you well. He was first class. A lot of teams were bouncing paychecks. The Generals never bounced a paycheck. Guys were paid in full. His ego is perfect to be a sports owner. He’d be Jerry Jones, and overall, Jerry Jones has been very good for the NFL.
He didn’t know much about football but wanted to be involved in football decisions. That’s usually not a recipe for a great situation.
I think he actually trusted his football people for the most part. I guess it was hit or miss. He wanted headlines, so he signed Doug Flutie when that didn’t really make sense. And he got really upset when Walt Michaels, the head coach, wasn’t using Herschel Walker as much as he thought he should have been. But I mean, he was right, it was ridiculous that the coach was not using him. I think overall he was pretty good about letting his coach coach. He wasn’t sitting there calling down, saying, “You need to this.” The owner of the San Antonio Gunslingers signed his ranch hand to be the punter. Trump actually wasn’t that guy. He wanted headlines. I don’t think he really fancied himself a football guru.
I read a biography of George Steinbrenner last year and couldn’t help but see similarities with Trump. They were friendly with each other. Did you learn of any interaction between the two during this period? Did one influence the other?
It’s theoretically possible, but I didn’t come across anything. The one thing I will say is, certainly in the ’80s in New York, Steinbrenner became the vision of what ownership is in sports. He was the dominant figure. Steinbrenner was a prototype for the owner who found a way into the headlines, and he came before Trump. I’ve definitely thought about the parallel many times, because Trump came along and did exactly what Steinbrenner was doing.
How big a part did tabloid attention play in Trump wanting to get involved? It’s a very specific kind of attention that he seemed to crave.
Oh, huge. Huge, huge, huge, huge, huge. I mean, his famous quote is, something along the lines of: “I build a skyscraper and maybe I get on the business page somewhere. I sign Gary Barbaro to be my free safety and I’m on the back page and the front page of the tabloids.” He is a tabloid-created celebrity. You don’t get famous in New York City generally for building buildings. And you don’t get famous just for dating models. But if you do both and you own a football team, and you start signing guys left and right, you end up on the back pages a lot. You know, the first papers he looked for in the morning were the Daily News and the Post, before the Times.
I’ve heard you say before that your research made you realize that past is prologue, and the guy we see now is the same guy we saw years ago, just on a different scale. Was there a particular moment that led you to that conclusion?
Oh, a hundred percent. The moment where I was like, “Holy shit” is, he signs Doug Flutie but tells the other owners they’re gonna pay for it. He tells his cohorts with the Generals, Don’t worry, we’re gonna sign him, and the other owners are gonna pay for him. And I’m sitting there going to my wife, “Oh my God, Doug Flutie is the Mexico wall, 30 years before the Mexico wall. And the other owners are Mexico.” And the other owners are all like, Fuck you, we are not paying for guy. And they never did.
The other big one to me is, he had a secret meeting with Pete Rozelle, the NFL commissioner, where he basically says, “I will gladly throw this league under the bus to get an NFL franchise.” When I hear people say there’s no way he would collude with Russia, I think, I don’t know, he kinda did the exact same thing, on a smaller scale. He was a part of this league, he was an owner, and he met with the NFL commissioner without other people knowing to throw the league under the bus. So, loyalty doesn’t mean that much to this guy, clearly.
How much of Trump’s current feud with the NFL dates back to his USFL days, to not getting that invite to the club?
I think it’s huge. I mean, he tried buying the Baltimore Colts and failed. He met with the commissioner to get an NFL franchise and failed. He led a lawsuit against the NFL and failed. He tried buying the Buffalo Bills and failed. He decided not to make a bid on the Dallas Cowboys, because he didn’t think it was financially worth it, and that just blew up in his face. Over and over again, it was the club he wanted to get into and couldn’t. When he was owner of the Generals — people talk about this — he would sit in the press box during the national anthem and do work, conduct interviews, whatever. There’s no crime in not standing for the anthem. It’s funny to hear him calling people out when in his own time as a sports official he wasn’t standing. So to me, it’s all just about this entity that rejected him repeatedly, and him never getting fully over that.
That’s been reported — that Trump didn’t always stand for the national anthem, and that he once spent the anthem berating a fellow owner. Should we care about that?
No. I’ve covered a million sporting events in press boxes, and I stand, but if I’m on the phone with an interview, I’ll duck into the back room and finish it. I’ve certainly Googled and tweeted during the anthem. And you know what, most writers have. No, I think it’s preposterous. I honestly do. It’s a weird criticism. I think it’s stupid.
So it’s just the hypocrisy that makes it a thing.
That’s the only reason it matters. I would never, ever, ever, ever think to criticize him for not standing during the anthem because he was conducting business. I don’t care. But the hypocrisy level is so high.
Was there anything else about Trump from back then that you looked at differently while writing the book in these crazy times?
One thing I was thinking about very early on was just his nonstop berating of people — the commissioner of the league, other owners, people who’d been around longer than him. There was a scene where he was talking to Vince Lombardi Jr., who was president of the Michigan Panthers at the time. And Lombardi was telling him about football, breaking it down. And Trump’s reaction was like, “What do you know, I know more than you do about this.” Just an unwillingness to listen, to seek counsel. It’s all right there. I’m actually surprised that Hillary Clinton’s campaign never did a five-minute video about the USFL, and how it mirrors what he would be as a president. I guess it’s too many things to explain, but it’s all right there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.