Jeff Pearlman

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The eerie parallels between President Trump and USFL owner Trump

Trump, right, with Commissioner Harry Usher

Trump, right, with Commissioner Harry Usher

So earlier today, while researching my book about the United States Football League, I was digging through old clips about the 1985 championship game. It featured the Baltimore Stars and Oakland Invaders, and was played in a rainstorm at Giants Stadium. The Stars won on a seven-yard touchdown run by a halfback named Kelvin Bryant.

Blah, blah, blah.

The matchup was the league’s final showing before a planned move from the spring to the fall, where the USFL would directly square off with the NFL. The change was engineered exclusively (and passionately) by Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals and, even in his late 30s, an absolute gangster who could lie and manipulate and cajole with the best.

Now, when Trump initially expressed interest in buying the franchise before the 1984 season, he spoke glowingly of the league, of its possibilities, of its potential. He never mentioned fall, or the NFL, or anything of the sort. Then, however, as soon as the sale was approved, Trump kicked off his push. The USFL, he told everyone and anyone, needed to be a fall league. Fall was football. Fall was football. Fall was football. Fall was football. There would be money in the fall. There would be TV deals in the fall. There would be glory in the fall. He repeated these mantras over and over and over; implored newspapers to write about the USFL’s fall potential; served as an anonymous source in myriad articles on the USFL’s need to shift to fall. Remember the fake publicist, John Baron, who was actually Trump disguising his voice? That started with the USFL, and Trump reaching out to reporters.

Anyhow, Trump got his way, because Trump always gets his way. He was able to convince the majority of the other owners (wealthy older men with detailed business backgrounds and records of success) to follow him to the fall, even though it was against their own interests (If you own a spring team in Denver, for example, and you move to fall, you’re now going head to head against the Broncos—in their stadium. Which you no longer can use. Good luck with that). He also pushed them to oust Chet Simmons, the anti-fall commissioner, and replace him with Harry Usher, who would—Trump rightly believed—do as he said.

There’s no exaggeration. It all happened.

But here’s what’s super nutty.

While researching that title game, I came across this article, written by an Associated Press reporter …

Screen Shot 2017-01-30 at 12.27.28 PM

What it says, basically, is that on the day of its final spring game, the USFL had absolutely no fucking clue how to move to fall. Trump’s initial idea (Fall football! Fight the NFL!) was big and bold and boastful and headline-generating. But when it came time to implement, he was clueless. He had never devised a plan; never considered the intricacies and complications; never discussed details with other owners. He certainly failed to consider the lives of hundreds of USFL players, coaches and team employees who would—best-case scenario—be out of work for 14 (or so) months.

In other words, 32 years before the immigration plan that lacked planning, Trump led a fall football plan that lacked, well, planning.

•••

The parallels between Trump in the USFL and Trump as president don’t stop there.

Need an example? In 1985, Trump signed Doug Flutie to quarterback his Generals. It was pure ego—the team already had a quality signal caller in Brian Sipe. But Flutie had just won the Heisman Trophy, and Trump’s ego demanded the little QB with the big heart and neon name come to New Jersey.

So they agreed to terms, held a press conference … and Trump, being Trump, told his people that the other owners would help pay Flutie’s contract. Read that again: He told people—without knowing how or why—that the other owners would pay a portion of Flutie’s contract. Here’s a letter he wrote to Usher, if you’re interested …

Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 12.56.58 AM

Now, the lie in the letter is that Trump had previously told the owners they would help pay. That’s simply untrue; a deceit. The first time Trump’s peers heard about contributing to Flutie was after he became a General.

If you’re not seeing this clearly, it’s Mexico wall, pre-Mexico wall.

They will pay!

Um, no they won’t.

Yes, they will!

That seems unlikely.

Just watch!

The owners never paid a cent for Flutie.

Mexico will likely never pay a cent for a wall.

Here’s another gem—if the USFL had a singular enemy, it was the NFL. The old league did not merely want the USFL to fail; it actively sought to bring it down. Sooooo … it was a bit odd that, without informing any of his fellow owners, Trump arranged a private meeting in a Manhattan hotel suite with Pete Rozelle, NFL commissioner. The topic? How could Trump ditch the USFL and land a New York-based NFL franchise. (This is not speculation, for the record. Or a guess. I’ve interviewed well over 400 people for the project. It’s also a subject Trump later discussed under oath—and lied about). Rozelle could not have been less interested in having a business relationship with Trump, much as Vladimir Putin likely feels about him now. But if he could use Trump to the NFL’s advantage … well, that would be, ahem, nice.

Last thing for today: The USFL wound up suing the NFL. Trump took charge, and hired Harvey Myerson as the league attorney. Trump told everyone Myerson was the best, the best, the best. He was the lawyer they needed. He couldn’t go wrong. He wouldn’t go wrong. With Myerson, the USFL would win big! Big! Big!

Myerson was a complete disaster, as was the lawsuit.

The USFL died, in large part because Donald Trump’s competence didn’t match his bluster.

It’s a familiar story of a conman asked to produce.

Worth noting.

Photo by Ryan Reilly from Trump's campaign visit to Lynden, Wa.

Photo by Ryan Reilly from Trump’s campaign visit to Lynden, Washington.

  • Ted Mark

    This says more to me about the business acumen and greed of the other owners than about Trump. If these guys were so smart, they would have told Trump to go fish. But Trump is the epitome of a con-man—he sold the owners by telling them things they wanted to hear just as he sold those who voted for him.

    • Bradley OBanion

      Sooooo you blame them for being duped by a con-man? wow! That’s pretty much like blaming a woman for being married to a man that cheats on her.

      • While researching that title game, I came across this article, written by an Associated Press reporter …

  • CPK

    But, the USFL won that lawsuit, right?

    The check they received in damages was $1, correct? Hilarious.

  • Calamity_Jean

    Thank you for writing this, Mr. Pearlman. It is very revealing.

  • Thy Lord Thy God

    God here don’t worry I hate Trump as much as you do. At the right moment I am going to give him a stroke while he is on the shitter with his Twitter account. Unfortunately you won’t know he has even had a stroke because he tweets crap like covfefe

  • Robert Dan O’Clock

    If I’m correct the USFL won the lawsuit with the jury agreeing to have the NFL pay them one dollar. That was legally trebled to three bucks. The big question was how did the USFL get its dough? Did the older league pay in cash, send them a money order or write a check. Lol.

  • No One Of Consequence

    The Trump-owned Generals got knocked out of the playoffs their final year by the team from Baltimore who were “born” in Philadelphia.

    Rod Rosenstein was born in Philadelphia and is from Baltimore.

    Let’s hope to add one more parallel.

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life