President Donald Trump set off a firestorm last Friday when he urged NFL owners to fire players who used the national anthem as an opportunity for protest. He doubled down this morning, suggesting a boycott of the NFL. Team owners have been quick to line up against Trump and support their players.
This isn’t the first time Trump has picked a fight with the NFL. And last time around, he lost spectacularly.
Trump’s football adventure began in 1984, when he bought the New Jersey Generals, part of the then-new United States Football League. The USFL, as chronicled in an excellent installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30 series, was envisioned by founder David Dixon as a complement to the National Football League that would play in the spring, leaving fall to the NFL. For its first three years, the strategy seemed successful.
But it wasn’t enough for Trump. He pushed hard to shift the USFL to a fall schedule, where the USFL – with less talent and less public awareness – would go head-to-head with the bigger league.
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The decision to switch to fall play immediately crippled several USFL teams, who wouldn’t be able to compete directly with local NFL teams. The league even turned down a lifeline in the form of lucrative TV offers to broadcast spring games.
But Trump’s plan was typically audacious and risky. Rather than organically grow a new league, he hoped to force an immediate merger with the NFL, which would provide huge returns for surviving USFL team owners. That goal hinged in part on an antitrust lawsuit alleging the NFL was an unlawful monopoly.
But things didn’t go Trump’s way. While the USFL technically won the antitrust case, the jury concluded mismanagement was mostly at fault for its problems. There was no merger and no buyouts. By 1986, the USFL was finished.
Trump’s current beef with the NFL has little direct parallel with his USFL days, and most current NFL owners weren’t around back then. But Trump is more than able to hold a grudge, so you can bet the episode is on his mind.
Football fans should remember it, too — because if it weren’t for Donald Trump, we might have pro ball year-round.