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How a young, brash Donald Trump took on the NFL

February 8, 2016 at 12:41 PM EDT
EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - CIRCA 1983:  Team Owner Donald Trump announces he has signed Herschel Walker to play running back for the New Jersey Generals in New Jersey. Walker played for the General form 1983-85. Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images

New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump and star running back Herschel Walker. Photo by Sporting News via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — More than 30 years ago, Donald Trump bought a franchise in the upstart United States Football League. He then led his fellow owners to sue the NFL in a high-stakes antitrust case.

The head-on challenge and his ownership of the New Jersey Generals was an early testing ground for the swashbuckling approach that the celebrity businessman-turned-Republican presidential candidate has brought to his 2016 campaign.

“Donald was the big, crazy-spending owner, and the NFL guys were scared to death of him,” said Bill Tatham Jr., an owner of the USFL’s Arizona Outlaws who came to admire Trump’s tactics.

Trump, in an interview Friday with The Associated Press, said his involvement with the league helped it stay alive longer than it would have otherwise, and that his involvement with the team raised his profile.

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Before the upstart league, he said, “I was well known, but not really well known. After taxes, I would say I lost $3 million. And I got a billion dollars of free publicity.”

The USFL was founded with an explicit goal: avoid fights with the NFL. Thanks to novelty and a few marquee players, most notably the Generals’ Hershel Walker, a Heisman Trophy winner, the league got off to a promising start. But by the end of the inaugural 1983 season, enthusiasm had ebbed and some cornerstone franchises were struggling.

That’s when Trump bought the Generals.

To people who cared about sports, as opposed to New York development deals, Trump’s name wasn’t widely known. But the tryouts for the Generals’ “Brig-A-Dears” cheerleading squad drew broad coverage, setting the stage for a media bonanza. During the first six months of his ownership, Trump’s name appeared 161 times in newspapers — more than it had appeared in the prior four years.

The USFL bled money during its first two years. Owners overspent on talent and the league expanded at a rate that its audience could not justify. Whether fixing these mistakes would have been enough to make a spring league viable remains the subject of heated debate decades later, according to interviews with those involved at the time.

But even if a spring football season were viable, Trump wouldn’t have wanted to be part of a league that was going to be “low class, all third-rate players” anyway, he said.

Trump frequently drew attention by sparring with the NFL. When the New York Giants got into a public contract dispute with star Lawrence Taylor, Trump wired $1 million into the linebacker’s bank account and signed Taylor to a future contract. To get Taylor back, the Giants “gave me a million dollars and hated me ever after,” Trump recalls.

With much of the league exhausted and in debt, Trump’s advocacy for a frontal assault on the NFL ultimately paid off. The case ended up in front of a jury; the NFL painted Trump as the villain. Though jurors found that the NFL was a monopoly, they awarded the USFL only $1 in damages — dooming the league.

“What the NFL did was smart,” Trump told the AP. “They purely said, ‘This is a Donald Trump thing, and he doesn’t need the money.’ ”

Three decades after the league’s collapse, many who participated in it see Trump’s presidential campaign as a replay of his football days. Some in lower perches in the league said it was a mistake that Trump persuaded fellow owners to support his attempt to break into the clubby world of the NFL.

“Even if the league wasn’t going to make it, that wasn’t the way to go out of business,” said Doug Allen, who represented the players’ union. “He didn’t care if he wrecked the league or what happened to players in the long run.”

But Tatham and other owners who supported Trump in challenging the USFL say it was a savvy gamble that nearly succeeded. They see a parallel in Trump’s current campaign.

“I think Donald Trump looks at the United States like his franchise in the USFL,” Tatham said. “Don’t ever think he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”

Associated Press reporter Jeff Horwitz wrote this report.

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