I’ll be honest — I’m pretty awful at making predictions. I once predicted that the Golden State Warriors were a shoo-in for the NBA championship title in 2016.
I then went on to predict that there was “just no way” they would blow a 3-1 lead. So up until this episode, I’ve kept my mouth shut.
The title of the third episode read, “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”
I jokingly guessed a specific name of a potential culprit to my mother, who also watched it with me and is now the only witness to my legendary prophecy, and — abracadabra! — I was spot on in the first 30 seconds.
I couldn’t believe this person would so confidently show their face to the world for an interview in 2009, 23 years after the U.S. Football League, or USFL, was botched.
However, just knowing that this same person had a hand in ruining an entire football league due to greed was about the funniest joke I had experienced all week.
I couldn’t have planned my prediction comeback better than this. Not only was I right, but the entire documentary was also centered around this same celebrity.
So yeah, I think I know who killed the USFL — it was our very own 45th president, Donald Trump.
Let’s get after it.
Volume 1, Episode 3: “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?”
For what it’s worth, the documentary was made cleanly, and the overall flow was a lot easier to keep up with than the previous two episodes were.
That being said, you couldn’t plan a documentary that slams Trump a quarter of a century before his administration any better than this.
The fact that it even aired on ESPN blows my mind — had it aired more recently, I can only imagine it would have been followed by multiple lawsuits and a brazen tweet (or five or six) ripping into director Mike Tollin for the film.
The episode centers around the time period of 1983-1986, when a bunch of old dudes decided they wanted some football in the fair-weather springtime instead of the unforgiving autumn. Thus, the USFL was formed in 1982, and ABC and ESPN had exclusive rights to the airing of its games.
It’s clear to me that the USFL was popular, but definitely financially unsound. Some stadiums reached full capacity, while others struggled to fill their stands with a few thousand people.
The league signed big contracts to future Hall of Famers early in their pigskin careers, such as Reggie White, Jim Kelly and Steve Young.
Running back Herschel Walker, the first Heisman Trophy winner to sign to the USFL, was the face of the entire league. With this unfathomable talent, it’s not shocking that the USFL was extremely fun to watch in its day.
Normalities that characterize the NFL today such as the challenge flag, the 2-point conversion and instant replay are all courtesy of the league that once was. USFL owners were still missing something, though, another push to get them over the hump and loft them into popularity, viewership and more cash.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump immediately bought the New Jersey Generals, and everyone believed that this was exactly what the USFL needed: a serious, cutthroat business mogul who knows how to bring the entertainment.
The league, unfortunately, continued its slow demise into unpopularity. Ratings were down, in-person attendance was similar and overall viewership began to decline.
It was the dark ages for the USFL, and it would only get dimmer.
Executives were behind on payments to players — in fact, most teams were borderline broke, pouring millions of dollars into something that just wasn’t very profitable in its earliest stages.
It was obvious that although Trump became the financial icon of the league, the USFL still needed, well, financial help.
Trump tossed out the idea that maybe, just maybe, the USFL could move to the fall to compete with the big boys in the NFL.
John Bassett, the managing general partner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, outwardly opposed the idea of directly competing with the financially stable, popular and talented NFL. Why would anyone want to?
This was a David vs. Goliath matchup. A startup vs. a staple.
Alas, Trump would get his wish, but not before suing the NFL for monopolizing football.
Now, I’m no numbers guy, but if I won a $1.69 billion lawsuit, such as the kind the USFL won against the NFL, I would expect to be a billionaire after.
However, because the jury viewed Trump as the extremely affluent man behind the lawsuit and believed that the damages the USFL claimed were just investments to make the organization more competitive with the NFL, the USFL was awarded just $1 to $3.76 total after antitrust claim and interest. I’m not a comedian either, but that number is hilarious and speaks to how pathetic that attempt at bankrolling the NFL was.
The owners decided not to play their scheduled fall season in 1986 at all, as there was no money, and a merger with the NFL was extremely doubtful.
So, the story of the USFL was short and very bittersweet.
Big-name players would get their shot in the NFL and make immediate impacts, while other players’ dreams were shattered. The unspoken question from the film seems to be, “What if we just stayed the course?”
Virtually every player, coach and executive in the documentary thinks Trump was in it for himself in the ’80s — but that’s more of a side note. Trump got his way, and the league went out in embarrassing fashion.
Sounds oddly familiar.
Lucas Perkins-Brown covers lacrosse. Contact him at [email protected]ilycal.org.