Donald Trump and the Check That Should Have Changed Football Forever
Twenty-five years ago, the USFL received its winnings for defeating the NFL in an antitrust lawsuit, but it was too late to save the pro football league from a fate largely determined by Donald Trump.
Photo by Mike Nelson/EPA
The check that should have changed the professional sports landscape is buried inside a desk drawer in Memphis beneath far too much paperwork.
The check, and the desk, belongs to Steve Ehrhart, now the executive director of the AutoZone Liberty Bowl and once among the most powerful figures in the United States Football League. It was Ehrhart who in 1990, as the former president and general manager of the Memphis Showboats, collected the damages in what figured to be the most significant legal defeat in NFL history: a $1.7 billion federal antitrust case, in which a jury ruled that the National Football League illegally held a monopoly on television rights.
The check was for $3.76.
There are myriad reasons why the figure on that check was ultimately so low, and why it was cut more than three years after the USFL had folded, but like Russian nesting dolls, the reasons fit squarely inside a single larger decision, which was spearheaded by one man.
Long before Donald Trump was America's most notoriously self-interested presidential candidate, he was the notoriously self-interested owner of the New Jersey Generals, another USFL franchise. And to understand the check, one must understand how Trump's personal ambition made an entire enterprise go bust.
"The check to me symbolizes Trump's Folly," said Mike Tollin, the league's videographer and the director of the 30 for 30 Small Potatoes: Who Killed The USFL? "It was back to the one grand mistake. Donald does everything big, right? And he made a big mistake—capital B, capital I, capital G."
The USFL was founded in 1982 as a spring and summer alternative to the NFL. By the end of its second season, in 1984, the upstart league was surging. A contract with ESPN, still a fledgling cable network at the time, provided a solid base to gain exposure and by playing games in the spring, it didn't have to compete for bandwidth directly with the more established NFL. It was catching up to the NFL in terms of talent, as well.
"We were the guerilla warriors," Ehrhart said. Though outgunned, the USFL was nevertheless winning its fair share of skirmishes. It boasted stars such as Reggie White, Jim Kelly, and Steve Young, and at one point signed three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Mike Rozier, Doug Flutie, and Herschel Walker. After the Michigan Panthers won the inaugural USFL title, in 1983, Ehrhart remembers the local newspapers in Detroit debating who could win in a game between the Panthers and the Detroit Lions.
"Things were going so well," Ehrhart said. "We won so much so early."
But there were troubling signs. The league was becoming something of boom-or-bust proposition: while outfits like the Philadelphia Stars and the Tampa Bay Bandits were thriving, the Los Angeles Express went bankrupt. The league botched its expansion strategy, ballooning from 12 teams to 18 in its second season, only to contract back down to 14 soon after. A tenuous salary cap was barely enforced, and a gradually escalating arms race with the NFL led to many franchises wildly outspending their means on talent. After just two years, the stakes had ratcheted so high that even the expectations of big moves were enough to cripple a franchise: James Hoffman, the owner of the Chicago Blitz, forfeited the team to its minority owners after ticket sales cratered following a failed high-profile pursuit of Walter Payton.
"The original idea was to crawl before we walk, and to walk before we run," said Carl Peterson, who was the general manger of the Philadelphia (and later Baltimore) Stars.
In 1985, Trump decided that the league should sprint. Although the league's original plan called for the USFL to grow and develop in the spring, the Donald demanded more: he wanted the league to move to the fall and battle the NFL head-on, beginning in 1986. "If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn't have created baseball," he famously boasted.
In fairness, Trump was not the only big-market owner who pushed the idea; Eddie Einhorn, who had just agreed to take over the Chicago Blitz, was another adamant supporter.
"The emphasis from Donald Trump and Eddie Einhorn from the Chicago Blitz was that if we told the NFL and the world we were going to move to the fall, the NFL had monopoly and one of two things would happen: either absorb USFL's expansion into the NFL, or have this legislation and prove they were a monopoly in violation of Sherman Antitrust Act," Peterson said.
The plan's proponents used the promise of financial gain for all parties involved as their selling point, yet those close to the situation understood that Trump's altruism, in particular, was a façade.
"In actuality, it was Donald's end-around way of trying to get himself in the NFL, an exclusive club that wanted no part of him," Tollin said. "His thinking was perhaps they could appease him, and allow him and maybe another small handful into the league, while the rest of the owners would divvy up proceeds and go away happy."
"Donald's always about Donald," Peterson said. "He's still a very good friend today, but without question he was hopeful that he might get an NFL franchise out of this in some fashion."
The plan was met with resistance, most notably from Tampa Bay owner John Bassett. But Bassett's health was failing—he would die from brain cancer the following year, at age 47—and he could only partly devote himself to the debate surrounding the vote. With his most vocal opponent sidelined, Trump's charisma ruled the day. After multiple votes, the league finally decided in April 1985 to move to a fall schedule the following season, with Bassett casting one of the only two dissenting ballots.
"There wasn't enough strength in the remaining ownership to combat this pursuit," Tollin said. "Off they went, pigs to slaughter."
The USFL still held its ESPN contract, but in those days ESPN paled in comparison to the power of network television, and all three major networks had already made broadcast deals with the NFL. The league lost franchises in five major markets, with teams being either unwilling or unable to directly compete against their more established NFL counterparts. No merger proved to be in the offing, which meant that the second and less desirable of Trump's proposed outcomes became inevitable: an antitrust lawsuit. The lawsuit would give the USFL a chance to level the playing field, if not ensure its outright survival.
A trial was set for the spring of 1986, on the grounds that the NFL had monopolized television rights and pressured networks to deny broadcasting USFL games that took place any time of year. The USFL sought damages of $567 million, which, if awarded in full, would amount to slightly more than $1.7 billion, as damages are tripled in federal antitrust cases.
Despite the rocky path that led them to a suit, there was enough working in the USFL's favor for the trial to be a success. Or at least it might have been a success, had Trump not remained the private architect and public face of the USFL's case.
To this day, Trump denies that the suit was his idea. "I went along with it," he told the New York Daily News last year. "I was one of the owners. But it wasn't my lawsuit. I didn't pay for the lawsuit. Generally speaking, it was the league. You have 12 owners and a Commissioner. I'm one owner. So how did I bring the lawsuit? I can't bring the lawsuit."
But it was Trump who pushed to file the lawsuit in New York—his turf and, more important, the NFL's base of power—rather than a smaller, USFL-dominated market such as Memphis or Birmingham. It was Trump who selected the attorneys, among them Harvey Myerson. And it was Trump whom the NFL slotted firmly in their cross hairs, and who unwittingly became the linchpin of their defense. (Trump's office did not respond to a request for comment before publication.)
Sometime after the trial's conclusion, Ehrhart learned that the NFL had conducted a mock trial well before the case ever hit open court. They argued a conventional antitrust defense, and lost decisively.
"So the NFL, based on that, changed their strategy and portrayed Trump as the bad guy," Ehrhart said. "'Rich Donald Trump taking advantage of these poor NFL owners who were doing good things for football,' and 'Here's this rich upstart Donald Trump trying to get something he doesn't deserve.' The real trial was an anti-Trump kind of trial."
This, Trump does not dispute. "From day one, the NFL painted me as a vicious, greedy, Machiavellian billionaire, intent only on serving my selfish ends at everyone else's expense," he wrote in his book The Art of the Deal.
After 48 days and 7,000 pages of transcripts, the NFL was found guilty, but a verdict that should have invigorated the USFL now stood to bankrupt it: the jury awarded just one measly dollar in damages. The NFL's strategy worked.
"The evidence was there that they acted illegally," Ehrhart said, "but the league had done such a good job portraying Trump."
Explanations for the USFL's Pyrrhic victory can be found on both sides of the case, however.
"The problem was that the lawyers that were representing the USFL put on a very, very screwed-up damages case," Ehrhart said. "They should have just made it clean and simple and say, 'Here's what the damages have been given that they had squeezed the USFL out of a TV contract worth five million per year."
Instead, Myerson and his legal team attempted to extrapolate damages according to an AFL-NFL lawsuit from 1962, even going so far as to bring in an economist as an expert witness. The same legal team who so expertly talked a jury through how the NFL broke federal antitrust guidelines suddenly became too esoteric for their own good. The jury was given no clear standard for what to award and had been persuaded to believe that the greatest beneficiary didn't need the money, anyway.
Still, Myerson dealt greatest damage to his client after the verdict was issued. The league immediately appealed the decision. The lawyer was confident that the USFL would prevail this time, so much so that he advocated they cancel the 1986 season outright to bolster the image of a league battered by what were now proved to be illegal actions from the NFL. The owners agreed, hesitantly, and announced on August 4 that they were suspending operations indefinitely. The USFL would never play another game. As for Myerson, he would later be handed a 70-month prison sentence for cheating his clients and committing tax fraud; he died earlier this year.
"When your lawyer is advising you that you are going win, that's one reason people voted to wait and not rush into the '86 fall year," Ehrhart said. "In retrospect, we should have kept playing.
"We were led down the wrong path."
Although the USFL folded in 1987, the legal battle was far from over. On four separate occasions, they appealed and each time they were struck down. Finally, on March 15, 1990, the check arrived: $3.76, after tripling the original $1 and tacking on interest. It is perforated and double-signed, with the NFL shield stamped top center. Ehrhart takes it out of his desk every once in a while; when he holds it in his hands, he considers how comprehensively the NFL turned defeat into the ultimate victory over its last true competitor. He has no qualms about praising the league as "public relations masters," poker players who held the losing hand yet somehow bluffed their way into the whole pot.
"Even though they lost the case, they turned it around on us with their great public relations machine, as though we were the great losers because we only got $1," Ehrhart said. After all, hardly anyone even remembers that the NFL was ordered to cut a second check to cover the USFL's attorneys' fees: a sum of over $6 million.
"'It's only a $1 league.' That's what made it difficult for us to keep playing—it discouraged owners and sponsors to keep playing. Had the verdict even been a million dollars, they couldn't have labeled us a joke."
Near the end of his documentary, Tollin confronted Trump with the famous check, and asked the billionaire if he had ever seen the most tangible legacy he left in the USFL.
"No, I haven't," Trump responded in a monotone. A few seconds later, he ended the interview. He shot a line about the USFL being "small potatoes" as he headed toward the door, cementing the film's title.
"I expected him to react the way that he did to it, small and petty man that he is," Tollin said. "He couldn't laugh about it. He couldn't joke about it. There's no self-awareness. It's so interesting to hear the discussion of admitting the mistake and apologizing – I think he's incapable of acknowledging that he might have been wrong or behaved badly."
Sure enough, later in the film, Trump assessed his USFL tenure accordingly: "I actually think I got the league to go as far as it went. I think, without me, this league would have folded a lot sooner."
Today, more than thirty years after the USFL played its final game, Tollin watches Trump on the campaign trail. He sees a man who is the same as he ever was, and shudders at the prospect of him running an entire country. "His lies and seemingly get away with them is disconcerting," he said. "That's what he traffics in.... It'd be amusing if it weren't so scary."
As much destruction as Trump wrought in the USFL, however, there is one thing Tollin can point to and smile—a bit of history that he hopes will repeat itself in Trump's run to the Oval Office.
"His teams started fast, and petered out, and never won the big one."