The United States Football League should have been a success and was headed in that direction until Donald Trump bought the New Jersey Generals and promised to make them great. Due to his activities, the league failed and Trump just walked away. READ MORE BELOW.
After Saying He’d Make the USFL Generals Great, Trump Destroyed Them
In 1983, Donald Trump promised to make my beloved New Jersey Generals great, yet he succeeded only in destroying my team and the rest of the USFL.
As a Yankee fan, I was used to the ways of megalomaniacal sports owners dominating the New York Daily News, promising the moon, and—yes—occasionally delivering championships. Growing up in New Jersey, we had perilously few opportunities to watch live football. New York Giants tickets were notoriously difficult to come by, the New York Jets were still playing at Shea Stadium in far-off Queens, and there wasn’t much of a tradition of college football excellence in the Garden State. When the possibility of Generals season tickets emerged for my father and me—in the upper deck, right along the 25-yard line—we didn’t walk; we ran.
The USFL, as envisioned by Saints and Superdome progenitor David Dixon, was one of the underappreciated ideas of our time. Dixon saw through the eyes of the Sacko men and recognized market space (New Jersey, Birmingham, among others) and time (spring) that NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle was ignoring. This league would supplement, not compete with, the NFL. Dixon recommended a tight $1.8 million salary cap per team. As long as sober-minded owners controlled spending, girded their lust for the limelight, and kept their eye on the long-term interest of the league, USFL success was highly probable.
Initially, the Jersey Generals had only alliteration and Herschel Walker—and as broad as #34’s shoulders were, they could not carry the team alone. Walker went on to lead the league in rushing in 1983 (in all three years of the USFL, in fact), but the Generals finished 6-12 that first year.
Then Donald Trump gazed down from his newly christened Tower in mid-town Manhattan upon the lowly Jersey Meadowlands, like Sauromon searching for the one true ring from Mount Doom, when something else shiny caught his eye. He didn’t have to wait long to bring it into his possession. After the guardedly successful 1983 season, the league added six more teams (rather than the four envisioned by Dixon) and approved the sale of the two coastal teams to big-pocket owners—the L.A. Express to J. William Oldenburg, billionaire former vacuum-cleaner salesman, and the N.J. Generals to Donald Trump, real-estate developer. At that point Mr. David Dixon wisely sold his stake and had no future dealings with the USFL.
Like George Steinbrenner with the Yankees, Donald Trump promised to make his team great (again). Mr. Trump seemed he might bring to the Generals what Steinbrenner had brought to the Yankees in the ’70s. Leaders provide a vision and inspiration. Mr. Trump’s vision was to make his team great, and he certainly used his resources in that pursuit. He hired former N.Y. Jets Coach Walt Michaels as head coach and then former NFL co-MVP Brian Sipe as quarterback, along with the great Gary Barbaro to anchor the Generals defense. The Generals improved in 1984 but lost in the first round of the playoffs to the eventual champions, the loathsome Philadelphia Stars.
Next year would be different, Mr. Trump promised. He delivered in drafting and signing the then-career passing leader in college history, Doug Flutie, who joined Walker as the second Heisman winner on the Generals’ roster. (Brian Sipe, you’re fired). He not only signed Flutie but even got someone else to pay for it (sound familiar?), concluding a deal where the other owners subsidized the large contract. In what would be their final season (unbeknownst at the time to us), the Generals lost in the first round again, in 1985.
Mr. Trump then doubled down by going after a deal that ultimately compromised his primary responsibility, which was to his team. He convinced the USFL leadership to go head-to-head with the NFL and to sue the football giant to help make that possible. His hope was to force a merger—after all, the NFL Generals would be markedly more valuable than the USFL model. Trump pushed his fellow owners to move the USFL’s season from the spring to the fall—saying, “If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn’t have created baseball”—with the hope that the NFL would panic. Rozelle, however, was not a man who panics; he held strong through the anti-trust lawsuit brought by the USFL. As he knew, this lawsuit wasn’t about fairness. It was about a deal.
The USFL sued the NFL for anti-trust damages of $1.7 billion. Despite having been offered $67 million per year for the next three years by ABC and ESPN, the USFL foolishly suspended the spring 1986 season, eyeing the fall. That summer, ajury concurred that the NFL had exhibited illegal monopoly behavior but saw right through the USFL’s (Trump’s) gambit to force a merger with the NFL. Unsympathetic to the USFL’s claims of NFL-induced financial woes, and concluding that theUSFL’s problems were due to its own mismanagement, the jury ordered the NFL to pay the USFL only $3. On August 4, 1986, USFL owners voted to suspend operations; the league would never play another game. After every judicial appeal failed, the USFL disbanded.
I felt betrayed. The New Jersey Generals faithful had been abandoned for the art of the deal. The cold, barren 1986 New Jersey spring would see no football after the historic takedown of the hapless New England Patriots by the Chicago Bears’ and their ’46 defense on January 26. Thank you, Donald Trump: You wrecked spring football.
David Sacko is a professor of political science at the United States Air Force Academy. The views expressed herein are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Academy, the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.