For Donald Trump, warring with the NFL is nothing new.
Before he was a reality show star and long before he was President, Trump was the proud owner of a professional football team – just not in the league you might expect.
In 1983, as Trump was making his mark on the Atlantic City boardwalk he also took a gamble on the upstart United States Football League, purchasing the New Jersey Generals.
“He hit it like a house of fire,” recalled former USFL Executive Director Steve Ehrhart. “I must have heard from him almost every night. He’d be running his business as well as working on the football team.”
Trump reveled in being a professional sports owner and the attention it brought. But as successful as the USFL was in its early days, it couldn’t compete with the stature of the NFL – something Trump wasted no time trying to change.
“He dominated the media (in New York City) for the years of 1984 and 1985. And when I say dominated, I mean back page of the New York Post, the Daily News. He understood that he would go straight after the NFL,” Ehrhart said.
Trump’s first target: The NFL’s players.
“We’re going after top talent. And the NFL will be paying a lot of money for them if we don’t get them,” Trump told CNN at the time.
The salary numbers bore out Trump’s threat. Players across the NFL who either jumped to the USFL, or just threatened to, saw their income jump by hundreds of thousands of dollars – money that came directly from the pockets of NFL team owners.
“The bargaining agreement where (the teams) thought that they gave a lot to the players through the union has been pretty well wiped out by the US Football League’s escalation of salaries,” NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle told reporters at a 1984 press conference.
Like his casinos or real estate developments, Trump’s standards for his team were high or at least they appeared to be.
“I believe you have to create at least the illusion that you’re going first class and even if we won, I don’t think that if we went out and got second-brand football players or secondary talent. … That is the image we’d want to create,” Trump told CNN at the time.
But the biggest image problem for Trump and the USFL wasn’t its players – it was its schedule.
The league played its games in the spring – a way to keep football fans entertained between the NFL’s fall seasons. But it also made the USFL the obvious also-ran to the NFL, something Trump wouldn’t stand for.
“He always made clear that to be the best you had to play in the fall. And I think he was probably right,” Ehrhart said. “If we remained in the spring we would also be patted on the head: ‘Well, that’s the minor league, the development league, the off-season league.’”
Trump’s plan? Convince his fellow owners to move the USFL’s season to the fall.
But he also wanted to do something even more daring: Sue the NFL itself, alleging its stranglehold on stadiums and TV rights violated anti-trust laws.
“Donald was the guy who was poking that big bear. He was a disruptor. He’s been that all his life,” Ehrhart said.
Not all of the owners agreed with Trump’s approach, especially those in cities where NFL teams already played in the fall. But Trump eventually convinced the league to change seasons and file suit. The trial became a national sensation, with Trump himself taking the stand.
The NFL “portrayed him as the big powerful guy who was trying to take advantage of the poor little old NFL, you know These guys are suffering. Donald Trump is beating them up. And that’s the message that they got across to the jury,” Ehrhart recalled.
But as the jury returned its verdict, it appeared Trump – and the USFL – had prevailed. The jury found against the NFL. But then the USFL owners read the entire 26-page decision.
The jury awarded them just $1 in damages.
“The NFL turned around and said it’s the $1 league and they brought out their media guns and just crushed us. It just broke the will of most of the owners,” Ehrhart said.
After postponing its 1986 season, the league would never play another game. And Ehrhart never cashed the settlement check.
“I don’t think Donald even likes to talk about it to this day,” he said. “You just got to get on and get to the next thing and don’t dwell on what’s happened in the past.”