(October 24) – Earlier this week, U.S. president Donald Trump invented a story about passing a 10 per cent tax cut for middle class Americans within the next week, even though Congress, which would have to approve the move, is out of session. He and his spokesperson also implied terrorists from the Middle East were infiltrating a caravan of Honduran migrants walking north through Mexico, toward the U.S.
That both these fabrications crumble under scrutiny doesn’t seem to matter to a president looking to seduce or scare Americans into giving him what he wants. Trump hopes the lure of a tax cut will win votes for Republicans in next month’s mid-term elections, while fear-mongering over ISIS fighters aims to create support the long-promised wall along the U.S. southern border.
Those tactics are familiar to veteran executives of the USFL, the short-lived pro football league whose rapid rise and spectacular crash are masterfully chronicled by veteran sports writer Jeff Pearlman in his new book, Football For a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL. The renegade league fought to establish a market niche, and seemed headed for growth until Trump bought a team and hijacked league strategy, then walked away when the league collapsed in a failed attempted to take on the NFL.
Pearlman examines how the USFL went from a crazy idea pitched to disgruntled NFL exiles to a real entity that enjoyed one-plus seasons of modest success. He lays out in intriguing detail what the league got right, how things went wrong after Trump bought in, and what the USFL experience tells us about the Trump’s approach to managing everything from sports teams to hotels to entire countries.
Pearlman’s 328-page book isn’t specifically about Trump. The future president appears early and then vanishes, but he looms over the text because the reader knows he’s coming back. And too intense a focus on Trump would deflect attention from the skill Pearlman, author of seven previous books on iconic teams and athletes, exhibits in crafting this tale.
Pearlman knows when to zoom in and point out the tiny details that help reveal the character of the league. Among the hundreds of interviews conducted in researching this book, Pearlman tracked down ex-USFLers like Vince Courville and Gregory “Big Paper” Fields, who otherwise were simply historical footnotes. And he introduces readers to people like Big Chief, the stadium employee tasked with setting up 6,000 folding chairs each week so the San Antonio Gunslingers’ tiny stadium complied with the USFL’s minimum capacity standards.
But Pearlman also writes with a fine-tuned sense of when to pull the camera back, and look at where the USFL fit into the broader sports and entertainment industry in the mid 1980s. While USFL teams in established NFL markets struggled, Pearlman’s research makes clear that other clubs, like the Tampa Bay outfit owned by Toronto’s John Bassett, tapped into a latent appetite for a slightly different type of football.
Fans in Tampa loved that their USFL team, unlike the Buccaneers, actually won games. Likewise, spectators in Houston embraced the high-scoring Gamblers, which featured future Buffalo Bills star Jim Kelly and a bevy of undersized, quicksilver receivers like Clarence Verdin.
And above all, Pearlman’s research and writing hint that, decades before the NFL Network and nationally televised spring games from major college programs, the USFL was developing an audience for spring and summer football.
Then along came Trump, who bought the flagship New Jersey Generals in 1984, then began campaigning to shift the entire league to an autumn schedule. That the move would put the USFL into direct competition with the NFL for ticket buyers, TV time and stadium space didn’t matter to Trump. Pearlman makes plain that it all formed part of Trump’s long-range, long-shot plan to own an NFL team.
Still, Pearlman shows restraint on Trump.
He even gives the future president credit for a smart football decision. When Generals head coach Walt Michaels used Herschel Walker sparingly, Trump berated the coach into feeding his star tailback the ball. Pearlman points to that confrontation as the turning point in a season that ended with Walker rushing for a pro football record 2,411 yards.
And rather than using Football For a Buck to bash Trump, Pearlman lets the future president’s deeds and decisions speak, then draws parallels to the present.
Just as Trump insists Mexico will fund the border wall, he signed Doug Flutie for $8.3 million then told the league’s other owners to help cover the cost.
Pearlman also points out that Trump’s attempt to ban travellers from predominantly Muslim countries mirrors his campaign to move the USFL schedule from spring to autumn — grandiose but costly and impossible to implement.
Even without the Trump subplot, Football For a Buck is a fascinating read on the short life of an upstart league that almost survived.
But Trump’s presence lends the book a depth and urgency. And in chronicling the ways Trump delivers less than he promises, then leaves others to suffer the fallout, Pearlman has also written a playbook to the current presidency.
*Morgan Campbell is a sports reporter for the Toronto Star, from which this article is reposted, and based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @MorganPCampbell