Donald Trump doesn't view his USFL role as impediment to Bills purchase: 'That league was dying'
Trump, the New Jersey Generals' owner, is considered the driving force behind switching the USFL from a spring league into direct autumn competition with the NFL. The kamikaze mission was intensified with a $1.7 billion antitrust lawsuit against the NFL.
That history could be an issue in Trump's declared pursuit of the Buffalo Bills.
First, Trump needs to actually bid on the team. Then, his bid needs to be considered the best and accepted.
After that, any purchase of the Bills would need to be approved by a three-quarter majority of the NFL's 32 owners.
Trump should hope the exclusive fraternity has a short memory or is a forgiving group.
Then again, many of the NFL's owners have died since the lawsuit was filed in 1984. The NFL also is two commissioners removed.
Maybe more importantly, Trump is a few incarnations removed.
"I think I'd be a great owner," Trump told me this afternoon from his office in Manhattan. "I have great respect for the NFL, great respect for the commissioner, Roger Goodell. I think he's terrific. And I think they have a respect for me."
Much of my conversation with Trump dealt with his take on the USFL's demise.
The USFL has been a romantic notion since it folded before the 1986 season. The USFL was a springtime novelty when cable television was nouveau and networks such as ESPN needed programming. Even the Canadian Football League was borderline chic.
The USFL captured the sports world's imagination by landing superstars such as Jim Kelly, Steve Young, Brian Sipe, Doug Flutie, Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier, Anthony Carter and Reggie White.
But the USFL was wobbly when Trump bought the Generals in 1984.
"When I came into the USFL, it was failing," Trump said. "It was ready to close."
Attendance had shrunk. Ratings waned. The league couldn't recover from its reckless decision to expand from 12 teams to 18 after the first season. Teams were stretched thin from all the overspending they did to woo NFL players. Kelly's Houston Gamblers merged with the Generals after the 1985 season.
As such, Trump is unapologetic for his role in USFL history.
The following is a transcript from that portion of our interview:
How much do you think your involvement in the USFL and the lawsuit against the NFL could impact buying the Bills?
"That league was dying. The problem was very simple. We had a number of owners that didn't have the money to play the game. Half the owners weren't able to pay their bills. They couldn't pay for their stadiums to play a game.
"I had said, 'If football was meant to be played in the spring, then God wouldn't have invented baseball.' I didn't believe in spring football, and I wanted to play in the fall. I wanted to go up against the NFL, but with respect.
"I didn't bring the lawsuit. The lawsuit was brought by the league. And we won the lawsuit. But that wasn't a Trump thing."
The lawsuit's verdict was a pyrrhic victory, though, wasn't it? (The judge ordered the NFL to pay the USFL $1 trebled plus 76 cents interest for a $3.76 payment.)
"The NFL did have to pay almost $6 million for our legal fees. But very intelligently, the NFL said, 'Well, Trump doesn't need the money,' which I didn't. So they gave us the victory, but they gave us a dollar trebled.
"I didn't start the USFL. I went in there when it was ready to fold. I bought a team for peanuts and did a good job. Every NFL guy would tell you I did a great job. We had a lot of great players who went on to be great players in the NFL. Jim Kelly would've been our quarterback that year had we played. We had Herschel Walker. We would've won the championship that year and forevermore.
"But when I came in at the beginning, I said, 'I don't want to be a part of a spring football league. I'll only come in if you guys agree to move it to the fall.' If I hadn't come in, the league wouldn't have gotten through the next season."
What about the possibility NFL owners could hold a USFL grudge if you try to buy the Bills?
"I think they respected me for it because I took a dead league and made it hot. But even if they would have teetered along for another couple years, it wouldn't have survived in the spring. And if I hadn't gotten involved, they wouldn't have lasted another season.
"The NFL owners that I know and are very honest about it, they will tell you I did a good job and they have respect for me. And I have respect for them."