In 1983, America received a delightful springtime surprise: A brand-new professional football league, custom-built to fill the desolate months during which the nation had been bereft of what was by then its most popular sport. It was called the United States Football League, and it was pretty legit as rival leagues go: Big stadiums, good players, a network TV contract. If you watch USFL games on YouTube, they don’t feel much different from NFL highlights—the games are on ESPN and ABC, you can see Steve Young and Jim Kelley playing against each other, and Keith Jackson does some of the games. Announcers talk about “pro football records.”
The USFL stands for now as the last of the rival leagues—outsider efforts by moneymen left out of true major-league-ness but anxious to play big-time ball. The ’60s and ’70s were a great time for rival leagues, and the most recent of them had only just gasped their last. A mere seven years previous, the American Basketball Association had expired and sent four teams and numerous exciting players to the NBA. The World Hockey Association died in 1979, bequeathing five teams to the NHL (including the Edmonton Oilers, who had five Stanley Cups by 1990). In the mid-’70s, the World Football League was even a thing—a flaming disaster of a thing, but it won a few bidding wars for NFL players and collapsed with at least two teams thinking they were NFL material. The most successful rival league ever, the American Football League, with its Jets and Chiefs and Raiders, had merged with the NFL only fifteen years earlier.
The tectonic plates of America’s sports landscape moved differently in the ’70s and ’80s than they move now. In the 1970s, the most famous athlete in the country was probably a boxer, and you could make your name as an athlete on “Battle of the Network Stars.” The Spurs’ Mike Gale appeared on a Sports Illustrated cover during the 1978 NBA conference finals wearing an inside-out Washington Bullets jersey due to a luggage mix-up by the airlines. That just wouldn’t happen now. Evel Knievel made the cover of SI. In the early ’80s, an indoor soccer team in Kansas City consistently outdrew the NBA’s Kings and forced them to move to Sacramento. In 1979, a basketball team called the Jazz moved to Utah. It was a different time.
Amidst all that, springtime football seemed like as good an idea as any. Or at least as good an idea as flying over the Snake River Canyon in a star-spangled firecracker or playing soccer on a carpeted hockey rink.
And this is where we meet the asshole Donald Trump.
“Asshole” is one of those words, like “bullshit,” that hardly even seems like swearing anymore. This is either due to the severely oversold coarsening of our civic discourse (as if anyone who lived before the Civil Rights Act, which I did not, could ever seriously make such a case without sounding like a sociopath) or because some words are just too good not to use, however “dirty.” You wouldn’t want your 10-year-old using words like that, but you don’t let them handle your fine China either.
Anyway, I recently heard a jazz man, William Parker, on the radio describe a piece of his music as being American “because I’m American.” I thought that was pretty good. Before I’d heard that, I had already thought Trump was an asshole, but that sure summed it up: Here is a man who has reaped the many and considerable benefits of his Americanness, for which no one has ever begrudged him (despite his obvious assholery), who for the good of a political campaign is making it his business, contra the Fourteenth Amendment of the greatest document in the long and checkered history of democracy, who gets to be an American and who does not. I can think of few things thing more assholish than that, and I can hardly think of another word for it (actually, I can: that word would be “bullshit”).
I really would be shocked if he’d bother denying that he’s an asshole. He’s playing the role as if its parameters were as specific as “quarterback of a football team.” Quarterbacks call plays and throw the ball; assholes tear other people down to promote themselves and make fun of other people’s looks, among many other untoward things. He has seen the void in American life vacated by previous greats and has offered to do the asshole work of, for a few random examples, claiming to send private detectives to Hawaii to hunt for the president’s birth certificate, casting a generation of America’s newest immigrants as rapists, telling Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (a noted winner) that he’s a loser, and descending on an escalator to announce his presidential candidacy. (It looked like something Steve Carrell would have done in “The Office.”) Like most people who are very, very good at what they do, he appears to be having a blast. (Noted exception: Kareem, oddly enough.)
In 1984, the asshole Donald Trump appeared to be having a good time as the owner of the United States Football League’s New Jersey Generals. The Generals, who played to decent crowds at Giants Stadium, were the league’s premier (though not best) franchise. The owner previous to Trump had managed to sign Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia superstar and Heisman Trophy winner, after his junior season—an unprecedented act at the time, and Trump followed that up by signing another Heisman winner, Doug Flutie, to the most expensive quarterback contract in the league. The Generals weren’t great, but the Flutie-Walker backfield was as entertaining as any in pro football, and the team probably could have held it own with most mid-level NFL teams. And so, despite the fact that Trump’s free-spending ways were destabilizing the USFL (the league had been founded on a platform of fiscal restraint, the idea being that even pretty good football would be better than nothing during the spring), the Generals’ star power and Trump’s bluster were having the salutary effect (at least to and for him) of introducing the word “merger” into the pro football conversation.
Donald Trump had paid for a ride on a star-spangled firecracker. It had not been his firecracker, not exactly, but he had assholed his way into its cockpit, and he could see the other side of the Snake River Canyon as clearly as he can see the big chair behind the big desk in the Oval Office right now.
Whether it’s a reasonable idea or not, playing pro football in April and May is a pretty good way to get attention. Similarly, you can also get a lot of attention if you’re already the star of a network TV show and every time anyone interviews you you declare that you believe the Leader of the Free World holds his office illegally. That’s a pretty good stunt. It’s like a middle-school whisper campaign to take down the unusual but supercool new kid who’s getting too much attention from the girls, cleverly conceived to make the dumbshits who can’t get girls to talk to them feel better about themselves—and, even better, to make them think you’re actually the supercool guy. It’s kind of like that. Except that Trump never whispers anything and manipulating dumbshit racism is more sinister by a factor of immeasurable assholery than preying on pre-teen male sexual angst.
He must know the birther thing was a total (and obvious) asshole move. It’s the only subject I’ve seen him evade during his asshole campaign, though I may have missed something here or there. He surely knows it was bullshit.
But there he was, pretending that the president’s birthplace was our nation’s greatest mystery and that he, Donald Trump, really, truly cared about it and was on the case. These days, when he dodges questions about the sordid affair, he seems out of character, no longer the straight shooter willing to transgress political correctness to tackle America’s real problems—and yet, somehow, he gets away with it. My only guess is that, because this really is his most significant dodge, the press gives him a pass, kind of the way no one asks Bill Clinton about the only time we know of that someone performed oral sex upon him in the Oval Office.
That’s just a guess. Trump’s getting-away-with-it is pretty stunning for such an unabashed asshole. I don’t quite know how a man can mock John McCain’s POW experience, make a menstrual joke about a Fox News icon, and claim that he can get Mexico to build him a wall and still be considered presidential timber, other than the fact that what he does and says is just what an asshole would do and say—and he’s just so damn good at it that calling him on it seems like overkill. When he shifts the conversation to an arena in which he is not a loser (as birthers are), but a winner (no one else could possibly be this much of a jerk without doing it on purpose and thereby being a sort of American carnival-barker evil genius), you can hardly knock the guy for being a world-class asshole in a country that absolutely, one-hundred per cent—and here’s where Donald Trump and I are on the same page—deserves a world champion.
The biggest problem the New Jersey Generals had in the springtime United States Football League was that they were never going to be world champions. It was not possible. Only NFL teams could win the Super Bowl and call themselves “world champions.”
Yes, being in a rival league is cool: You might get to change up a few rules, have team in Alabama and Tulsa, wear funny uniforms, and call yourself an outsider, but sooner or later that urge to be a real winner takes over—just like it did when Julius Erving came from the ABA to the NBA, when Edmonton came and took over the NHL, when Joe Namath and the AFL Jets won the Super Bowl—and the genuine champions prove themselves on the highest stage. Circumstances conspired to give Dr. J, the Oilers and Broadway Joe and their world championships, but assholes do not await the kindly hand of chance. They make up some crazy bullshit, kick the foundations out from underneath someone else’s half-baked ideas—or hard work—and fucking go for the win. (OK—that was actual swearing, but the situation seemed to call for it.)
And so, after the 1985 season, Donald Trump led the USFL on a course to play traditional fall football in 1986. Claimed he never liked playing in the spring. He sued, of course, or rather the league sued, behind his gentle urging (some of the teams still thought playing in the spring was still a good idea), arguing that the NFL was a trust, which it may have been. The USFL made the perfectly believable claim that the old league and the TV networks had conspired to keep the new league off the autumn air. Wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that were true. The rival league may have had a case. I can’t imagine how the USFL thought it was going to get decent fall dates in all those NFL stadiums.
(There are a great many sources for information on the league and its subsequent courtroom drama, but there’s nothing like Mike Tollin’s phenomenal “ESPN 30 for 30” documentary, “Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” It’s on YouTube. Trump is interviewed in it. It’s great.)
But the widespread belief, then as now, was not that the NFL was screwing the USFL; the conventional wisdom was that Trump was trying to force a merger of, oh say, one or two teams, maybe possibly including the New Jersey Generals. He claims that it wasn’t his lawsuit, that he was just one of twelve owners, going along for the ride. He also claims that without him the league was a disaster. Still, the record shows that without him it was doing okay, with traditional rival-league growing pains, and that with him it ceased to be. His quotes on what happened in 1985 have the truthful ring of a man claiming he meant to say that Megyn Kelley was bleeding out of her nose or that what he really meant was that Carly Fiorina is a beautiful woman.
The suit didn’t work out. In a distinctly sarcastic ruling, the court declared that the NFL was, in fact, a trust, and awarded the USFL $3. Three dollars. The jury determined, among other things, that while the NFL was pulling some bullshit stuff, the USFL was just bullshit. It was their little way of telling Trump and his friends that they were a very special kind of asshole: They were losers.
The last real rival league hadn’t died the usual sputtering, gasping rival league’s noble death; it had died an asshole’s death, grasping beyond its reach, making up bullshit—and being called on it—in a vain and pathetic effort to get something it didn’t deserve.
The court proceedings had run the United States Football League out of money, and the springtime dream was obviously dead. No going back. At least eight teams that had planned on giving the USFL another season called it quits instead. That’s a lot of players, many of whom would never play football professionally again. That’s kind of like getting to decide who gets to be an American in its way (kind of), both in the sense that Donald Trump was in no position to make a decision like that—he didn’t know anything about football—and in the more obvious way that he didn’t much care about the careers of the players and staffers in his employ. That’s a lot of people learning some pretty hard life lessons right there.
And one asshole, who didn’t learn a goddamn thing.
Photo of USFL football by Dave Sizer