‘Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL’; by Jeff Pearlman; 2018; Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt Publishing Co.; 366 pages.
Near the end of “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL,” author Jeff Pearlman’s 366-page lament about the brief three-season life of a professional football league, former USFL and later NFL coach Jim Mora sums things up very neatly by saying in 20-20 hindsight, “It’s not about the game. It’s about the ride.”
That is perhaps the ultimate truth and wisdom when it comes not only to the wild, frustrating, entertaining, maddening and ultimately failing story of not only the USFL but nearly all fledgling sports leagues raised to compete with their already well-established counterparts. These upstart leagues begin with more vision than operating cash and expertise and are then populated with wide range of quirky, gambling, edgy characters who spark an almost unlimited number of colorful and off-color tales about nefarious, questionable, dangerous and sometimes criminal exploits. The best book of this kind, of course, is “Loose Balls,” the seminal oral history of the late-American Basketball Association by journalist Terry Pluto published in 1990.
“Loose Balls” set a high standard for books about the fits, starts and deaths of similar enterprises. And the United States Football League certainly fits the profile. The USFL of the early 1980s, like its predecessor, the AFL of the early 1960s, was created by a handful of gutsy owners who felt the National Football League could stand some competition and that emerging markets were ready for a professional football team but had thus far been denied one. And USFL owners had one other thing in mind — creating a football product to fill a void for fans when the NFL season ends in then-late January. The novel idea behind the USFL was to provide a league in the spring with the playoffs extending into summer.
It was an idea that showed signs of succeeding until one owner — sparked by self-interest, bluster, a deficiency of truth and way too much ego — brought the entire enterprise tumbling down. That owner of the now long defunct New Jersey Generals is now president of the United States.
For Pearlman, a one-time writer for Sports Illustrated who has authored a succession of highly successful books about subjects ranging from the world championship New York Mets baseball team of 1986, the showtime Los Angeles Lakers and the 1990s Dallas Cowboys to biographies of now retired Green Bay quarterback Brett Favre and the late Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, the USFL fits neatly into his reporting wheelhouse. He also brings a personal interest to the “Football for a Buck” that comes through in his reporting and writing. He readily admits to growing up as a fan of the USFL and was deeply saddened when it died in 1985 after winning what was a poorly argued lawsuit against the NFL — sparked by New Jersey Generals owner and now U.S. President Donald J. Trump — in which the league was given a minimum in damages, $3. The court ruled that while the NFL did violate anti-trust laws, the USFL had only its own incompetence and mismanagement to blame for its looming failure. That incompetence and mismanagement were engineered by Trump himself.
That Trump destroyed the USFL has never been in dispute. The then-young real estate developer first became nationally known through his association with this new sports league. He originally wanted to buy an NFL franchise. Denied by then NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and other owners — Rozelle allegedly told Trump during a meeting that as long as Rozelle or his heirs were alive Trump would never be allowed to own an NFL team — Trump turned to the USFL. His idea was to buy a USFL franchise, force other league owners to move the schedule to the fall in direct competition with the NFL and force the NFL to absorb the USFL teams in a merger similar to the one engineered with the AFL a decade before.
And if he had to lie, bully or sue in order to achieve this goal, so be it.
How Trump moved to make this happen reads very much like the playbook from his successful 2016 political campaign and his more than two years in office to date. Pearlman builds that part of the narrative through the eyes of other surviving owners; former players like Steve Young, who went on to a hall of fame career in the NFL and is now an analyst for ESPN; newspaper and other accounts from that time, published books and hundreds of documents. Trump, of course, isn’t the only erratic owner — he had a counterpart who owned the Los Angeles Express — but he is ultimately the one who convinced hesitant owners skeptical of moving from spring to fall to do so against their better judgment. It was the death knell for the league.
How Trump manages to do so is a compelling part of the overall story and another window into his baffling but undeniable charisma. How the other owners are moved from revulsion and scorn to acquiescence befuddles the men themselves to this day. This too sounds familiar.
The endgame and finances are big parts of the story Pearlman tells, but these issues are deftly woven through what is an interesting and worthwhile history of the USFL. Pearlman does a thorough job of reporting the beginnings of the league, how its teams were put in sites previously ignored by the NFL and found success, the journeys and pitfalls encountered by coaches and players alike and the bidding wars for top-notch talent like Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Young. The party culture of the USFL matched the drug-culture of the cocaine-infused 1980s and perhaps exceeded it. It’s an engaging tale with all the requisite sex, guns, drugs, fights and arrests. Ultimately it’s also about team flights cancelled at the airport due to unpaid bills by owners; weeks with no paychecks and one regular season game in the last season being played in a high school football stadium.
While Walker and Young were two of the USFL’s brightest stars who moved on to the NFL after the league collapsed, notable others included defensive lineman Reggie White, quarterback Jim Kelly and offensive lineman Gary Zimmerman. It was a league rich with talent — nearly 150 former USFL players found work in the NFL. Notable coaches and executives who transitioned to the NFL were Mora, Marv Levy and Bill Polian. The NFL system for challenging the rulings of officials and instant replay were copied from the USFL.
As exciting as the start of an innovative enterprise can be, its end is equally sad and disappointing. It’s ironic that “Football for a Buck” was released not very long after another new spring football league was announced. The AAF began play this weekend. It’s hardly a coincidence that the book was released about two years after Trump’s election to the highest office in the nation. He’s the background figure throughout.
Either way, it’s timely.