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Trump's crusade against the NFL is USFL history repeating

It was one year ago that President Donald Trump kicked off his ongoing public crusade against the NFL, at a rally in Alabama. Since then, he has continued to sporadically tweet (26 times in the past year) about the protests, the ratings, and what the league ought to be doing.

But Trump’s animus toward the NFL is rooted in a 37-year-old grudge over Trump wanting to become an NFL team owner. It is a conflict that sportswriter Jeff Pearlman strips bare in his new book “Football for a Buck.” As Pearlman tells Yahoo Finance, “The book is actually not about Trump, but he’s a big character in it.”

Pearlman’s book relays the entire fascinating history of the United States Football League, a league that lasted just three seasons. Trump looms large in the story, first as a USFL team owner and then as the driving force behind an ill-advised lawsuit that destroyed the USFL.

The release of “Football for a Buck” is remarkably timely on two fronts: three decades after the failure of the USFL, Trump is now president; and two more upstart football leagues, the XFL and the Alliance of American Football, are looking to launch imminently but may simply go the way of the USFL. Taking on the NFL is a tall and somewhat futile task, as Pearlman’s book reminds us.

‘You will never be a franchise owner’

In 1981, Trump tried to buy the Baltimore Colts, an NFL franchise. He backed a group that offered owner Robert Irsay $50 million for the team; the offer was rejected. Trump denied making the offer, but Irsay confirmed publicly that he turned the offer down.

In 1983, Trump instead settled for buying a USFL team, the New Jersey Generals. As Pearlman reports in one of the most fascinating insider anecdotes of his book, after committing to buy the USFL team Trump arranged a private meeting with then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. He made clear to Rozelle that the USFL did not matter to him and that what he really wanted was an NFL team. According to a colleague of the USFL marketing man who was in the room for the meeting, Rozelle told Trump at the end of the meeting, “As long as I or my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league.”

It was then that Trump approached the other USFL owners and said that the USFL, a league that played its games in the spring, needed to move to fall and get a big TV deal to challenge the NFL. He convinced USFL owners to sue the NFL for $567 million over its monopoly of fall television rights. The 1986 trial, USFL vs. NFL, lasted 48 days.

Pearlman calls it “the craziest lawsuit of all time.”

As he describes the trial to Yahoo Finance, “Donald Trump is the star witness for the USFL. And he’s the worst witness in the history of mankind. And what the NFL did is they made him the enemy.” Pearlman even interviewed one of the jurors from the trial, who recalls Trump “staring her down” during his testimony.

The jury in the trial found in favor of the USFL, concluding that the NFL did have a television monopoly. But it also found that the USFL was to blame for its failures, and it awarded the USFL $1 in damages — hence Pearlman’s book title.

Before he played in the NFL, Jim Kelly played in the USFL for the Houston Gamblers. (Getty)
Before he played in the NFL, Jim Kelly played in the USFL for the Houston Gamblers. (Getty)

That wasn’t the end of Trump’s attempts to become an NFL owner.

In 2014, after Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson died, Trump made an offer for the team. After a six-month bidding process, Terry and Kim Pegula, the owners of the Buffalo Sabres hockey team, got the Bills for $1.4 billion.

Trump was not happy. In a series of tweets in October 2014, he questioned the NFL’s tax exemption status; mocked the league’s ratings; and finally concluded, “Glad I didn’t get the Bills.”

That wasn’t the only way in which Trump’s time in the USFL mirrors his actions today. In 1985, when Trump signed Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie to a contract for the Generals, he at first told the other USFL owners they should have to help foot the bill for Flutie’s contract, under the premise that Trump was helping the whole league by signing Flutie. “That is the Mexico Wall,” Pearlman says. “It is the exact same thing.”

‘The No. 1 enemy of the NFL is itself’

In 2018, the NFL is still facing existential business challenges as cord-cutting proliferates along with distractions from Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime, HBO, Showtime, and other premium streaming television.

Pearlman’s take on the NFL’s ratings crisis: too much football.

“The No. 1 enemy of the NFL is itself, in terms of over-saturation of the game,” he says. “When I was growing up, Monday Night Football was a huge deal, it was event-watching TV. Nowadays we have Monday Night Football, Sunday football, Sunday Night Football, Thursday Night Football, the NFL Network is on all the time… I love chocolate; I don’t need it every day.”

Jeff Pearlman was the special guest on the latest episode of the Yahoo Finance Sportsbook podcast. You can listen below.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. He hosts the podcast Sportsbook and the video series Business + Coffee. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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