Trump's NFL Fight Dates Back to His Failed USFL Experiment in the '80s

President Donald Trump's war with the NFL is big news these days, but he's been waging battles with the league for decades—when he hasn't been trying to woo it.

Over the weekend and into Monday, Trump has railed against NFL players who have chosen to kneel during the national anthem to protest oppression of African-Americans in the U.S. Rather than stopping the demonstrations, the president's insults have appeared to unify the league against the commander in chief. Trump has long chased the NFL and the league has, in turn, largely rebuked him.

In 1982, the rival United States Football League (USFL) announced it intended to start playing in the spring, outside the NFL season. Trump eventually owned the New York City-area team, the New Jersey Generals. Newsweek spoke about the USFL with author Jeff Pearlman, who has a book on the league, The Useless, that's due out in 2018. Having spoken with coaches, players, owners and just about everyone involved with the league—some 420 people in total (although not Trump himself)—it's unlikely anybody has a fuller picture of the USFL's brief life than Pearlman.

It was Trump's undying need to get into the NFL that drove the billionaire to buy his way into the upstart league in the '80s, the author said. But the big league wasn't a fan.

"They just saw him as this scumbag huckster," Pearlman told Newsweek. "He was this New York, fast-talking, kind of con-man."

In the course of Trump's NFL pursuit, he made a fair number of enemies at the USFL and helped shuttle the league to an early grave. He convinced other USFL owners to challenge the NFL directly in the fall, and then led the charge on an anti-trust lawsuit against the football giant that netted a massive...three dollars. The USFL was dead by '85. 

Here's the conversation with Pearlman, condensed and edited for clarity:

How did Trump get involved with the USFL?

The USFL started, its first season was 1983, but the planning was a little earlier and they were initially trying to get owners for different franchises; they knew obviously they needed a New York team. Their thinking was: “We need New York, we need Chicago, we need L.A.” They went to Trump, after he expressed interest. And [in] one of the very early owner meetings in San Francisco, a bunch of the owners met in a room to go over league plans. Trump wasn’t there but he was going to check in via conference call. So they’re all gathered around and the phone rings and it’s Trump. He basically says, “Yeah, so, um, I decided I’m not doing this. Sorry. See ya. Bye.” That was it.

He did not get involved then, initially, and they really felt they were screwed for a while because they needed a New York team. They got a guy named J. Walter Duncan, who was an Oklahoma oilman, to run the New York franchise. So the Generals existed the first year under J. Walter Duncan. And then Duncan didn’t want to do it anymore because he was literally flying every week from Oklahoma to New York for football. So he put the team up, Donald Trump bought it and that’s how he got in.

The thing that’s important is: His motives were ridiculously awful in hindsight. I mean, his goal was to have an NFL franchise. He tried buying the Baltimore Colts a couple years earlier, didn’t get them. He wanted an NFL franchise and he saw this as a way to do it. He talked all happy-happy about the USFL and spring football until he got the team. And as soon as he got the team he was angling in every way possible to move them to fall to take on the NFL, so his team, somehow, would be absorbed by the NFL.

It seems like his primary goal behind being a part of the USFL was to drive the entire league toward a merger. Is that a fair assessment?

No, actually, I think that’s incorrect. His entire goal was to get him an NFL team. He didn’t care how he got it. It wasn’t like, “Oh, I really hope I can lead you guys to a merger.” He didn’t give a shit about the other owners. Like, at all. Did not care. No interest, whatsoever. His goal was to get in the NFL. If it took a merger, so be it. If it took the entire USFL collapsing and he gets an [NFL] team, that’s fine too. 

Did you get any sense of why he had this obsession with having an NFL team?

Money, prestige, fame and fortune; building of the Trump name. All the reasons you would kind of figure with Donald Trump. 

The other thing about him, and this is like armchair psychiatrist…but it’s true. He’s the guy who covets what he doesn’t have. He’s a guy who sees—the NFL ownership is a ridiculously exclusive club.

He wanted in. He’s always the guy who doesn’t—you saw it when Obama made fun of him at the [White House] Correspondents Dinner—he has bruised feelings over not being what others are. And he really wanted to be what these guys were, which was NFL ownership—sports royalty.

He’s had a few failed attempts too—he had the Bills as well, where they kind of didn’t want him in.

So he had a bunch actually. First he had the Colts, which didn’t end well. But he was very young then, so, whatever. Then, this is kind of funny actually, [in] 1988 the New England Patriots were for sale. And the Sullivan family actually sort of gave him the first chance to bid on the team. He decided against it because he didn’t want to inherit the debt that the Patriots owed. So basically Victor Kiam of Remington, the razor company, ended up buying the New England Patriots. And not that long after that [current owner] Bob Kraft bought them. It would have been the greatest investment in Donald Trump’s life because the Patriots now are the second-most-valuable team in pro football. But he didn’t do it.

Then the Bills [in 2014]. He low-balled the Bills offer. He could have had the Bills and he got outbid. The winning bid was $1.4 billion and he bid $900 million and he lost out.

There are very few NFL teams you’re getting for less than $1 billion

No. It’s funny actually, after he lost, the guy who bought the Bills—this is classic—held a press conference. The guy who bought the Bills is the same guy who owns the Buffalo Sabres and he held a press conference and Trump live-tweeted during his press conference saying how the Bills were going to be failures and it was a waste of his time and blah, blah, blah.

Getting back to the USFL: What did people in the league think of him then and what do they think of him now?

There were mixed opinions of Trump back then. On the one hand, look, he took over the New Jersey franchise and he made them really good. So people said, “Look the guy did great, he took over this franchise and he did well.” And he did, factually can’t argue that on the field the Generals were vastly improved.

But he really blew up the model. Like, the USFL model was keeping spending in check, regional growth, slowly and surely, maybe in a decade we can challenge the NFL. Maybe. And [Trump] was basically like, “To hell with that.” So, some of the guys who could afford to keep up with him were like, “All right, if this is what we gotta do, this is what we gotta do.” Smaller owners were horrified.

John Basset of the Tampa Bay Bandits who wrote that letter. You saw that letter I posted right? (Note: In the letter Bassett threatens to punch Trump if he continued to insult other owners. It is embedded below.)

He was probably [Trump’s] arch-enemy in the USFL. Because Bassett had been through the World Football League, he owned a team in the World Football League and he knew, sort of, how it worked. If you outspend yourself and you drive yourself into this bidding war with the NFL, you’re doomed to fail. Someone asked [Bassett], “What’s the key to this league surviving?” And he said, “Every week we’re going to have nine games, one team is gonna win and one team is gonna lose.” He’s basically saying we don’t have to outspend ourselves here, it’s always going to be the same thing, someone’s going to win, someone’s going to lose. The dumbest thing we can do is ending up blowing our wad. So a lot of guys thought Trump was the guy who was blowing his wad, you know?

We touched on Trump’s beef with the NFL, but do you think that in any way inspired what he’s doing now? That elite club he was never let into, do you think that’s something that has stuck with him over the years?

Oh, I do. He’s clearly not a guy to let slights go and the NFL has rejected him repeatedly.

So, this is kind of a big thing that a lot of people didn’t know about. Trump held a secret meeting with Pete Rozelle, who was commissioner of the NFL, in 1984. At the Pierre Hotel in New York City, Trump paid for the suite, told Rozelle he wanted to meet to talk. Rozelle had known him casually over the years. They meet and Trump is basically offering to do whatever it takes, “I’ll leave the USFL, I don’t need them, blah blah blah, to join the NFL."

Rozelle didn’t know that’s why they were meeting. I interviewed a guy who was at the meeting and he was like, “Rozelle said to him, ‘You will never be an owner in the NFL. As long as I’m affiliated with the NFL or my family is affiliated with the NFL, you will never have a team in the NFL.’” Because they just saw him as this scumbag huckster. He was this New York, fast-talking, kind of con-man. You know? He was just a huckster and they didn’t really want that.

It’s almost like that line in Titanic, “Old money, new money,” where Molly Brown was like new money so nobody wants to talk to her. Trump was new money and he was classless. There was no class to him, that’s how he was viewed by them. This classless buffoon. So there was no interest in having him as an owner in the NFL. The NFL never really wanted Trump, you know? He’s kind of [Dallas Cowboys owner] Jerry Jones without the dignity. Jerry Jones actually has some dignity. Trump does not.

Is there anything that I didn’t bring up that you think is really important, that I’m missing here?

There’s just a lot of parallels between him as a USFL owner and him as a president. I’m really being sincere. How old are you?

Twenty-six.

So, do you know who Doug Flutie is?

Of course! [Note: I would often use Flutie as quarterback in the video game Madden.]

Trump’s big thing was he got Doug Flutie. That was his big signing. Before the last season, the ’85 season, he signed Doug Flutie. And he sent a letter to the other owners saying, “This was going to be great for the league and I think everyone should pay for it—all of you guys should pay for me signing Doug Flutie.” He wanted the entire league to pay for Doug Flutie’s contract.

It reminded me so much of him saying Mexico would pay for the wall. Because the other owners are like, “No fucking way we’re paying for this contract. We’re losing money here, left and right, why are we going to pay for his contract?”

He bullied other owners. He was a bully. But somehow people went along with. They just did. They thought he knew what he was talking about, or they didn’t want to argue, or they didn’t want to get in his way. He was in meetings, USFL meetings, he was a nightmare to deal with. He would not shut up. But when other people spoke, he never listened to them. He was just like…he was the worst.

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