How Trump's time running a doomed football team fueled his political fight with the NFL

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump has repeatedly picked on the National Football League, in one of his favorite political fights in the White House.
  • It can partly be traced back to his repeated failures to secure ownership of an NFL franchise, according to a new book.
  • The author details how the United States Football League triggered some of the events that led to Trump's animosity toward the NFL.
In this March 8, 1984, file photo, Donald Trump shakes hands with Herschel Walker in New York after an agreement on a 4-year contract with the New Jersey Generals USFL football team. 
Dave Pickoff | AP

As Donald Trump built up a franchise in the short-lived United States Football League, he coveted a bigger prize.

In 1983, the 37-year-old real estate developer spent less than $10 million to buy the New Jersey Generals, a messy team coming off its first season in the rollicking spring league.

From the time Trump started running the Generals, those involved with the USFL saw a man fixated on another goal: Owning a team in the National Football League, the pinnacle of the American sport.

"I don't know about the rest of you people and I don't know how much money you guys have, but I have the money to get into the NFL," Trump told his fellow USFL owners at a meeting in 1984, according to a new book about the league. "And that's where I plan on being."

Trump, who now sits in the White House after a dizzying political rise, never got his wish. His repeated failure to break into the NFL contributed to an animosity toward the league that has lingered for decades. That conclusion is based on the reporting of Jeff Pearlman, a sports journalist and author of "Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL." The book was published Tuesday, the same day as another Trump-flavored tell-all, Bob Woodward's "Fear: Trump in the White House."

In the Oval Office, Trump has repeatedly targeted the NFL in one of his favorite political fights, over whether players should kneel during the national anthem while protesting social justice issues. He is expected to return to the issue repeatedly during football season as the midterm elections approach, as it plays to both the patriotism and reverence for the U.S. military that stoke excitement in his political base.

As the first Sunday of the NFL regular season kicked off last weekend, the president took another swipe at the NFL and cheered a drop in television ratings for its first Thursday night game. He tweeted: "If the players stood proudly for our Flag and Anthem, and it is all shown on broadcast, maybe ratings could come back? Otherwise worse!"

Trump tweet

Pearlman said Trump's battle with the NFL certainly relates to his inability to become part of the league.

"It all, to me, really comes back to the rejection he kept getting from the NFL," the author told CNBC. "He's never handled that stuff well. But it's repeated and repeated slights and repeated rejections, and it all kind of adds up to what we're seeing now."

The publicity play

The NFL spurned Trump several times, first in 1981, when he tried to buy the Baltimore Colts. As Trump built a high-priced Generals roster that included Heisman Trophy winners Herschel Walker and Doug Flutie, his critics within the USFL saw an owner hoping the whole time his team would eventually join the NFL.

Pearlman's book describes an owner who in private "explained to confidantes that he did not aspire to build a great USFL team — but a great NFL team," the author said.

"He would purchase the Generals, build them into the class of the USFL, watch the upstart league either fold or merge with the NFL, and eventually relocate to Shea Stadium [in Queens] until his new facility was constructed in Manhattan," Pearlman wrote.

Trump, a master self promoter, was initially seen as an asset to a fledgling league seeking publicity. While the USFL had some stars and teams that could draw crowds in its first season in 1983, it also had multiple poor rosters peppered with mediocre athletes or players with cocaine, alcohol or legal problems. Trump's stunts as an owner included highly publicized but ultimately failed attempts to pry superstar Lawrence Taylor and famed coach Don Shula away from the NFL.

Nike releases TV ad featuring Colin Kaepernick
Nike releases TV ad featuring Colin Kaepernick

Despite more high-profile signings, including future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Steve Young and Jim Kelly, the USFL collapsed after three seasons. Its demise was in no small part due to a Trump-led antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Trump pushed the USFL owners to move to the fall to directly challenge the more popular league, over the objections of those who preferred a steadier growth path on the spring schedule.

"If God wanted football in the spring, he wouldn't have created baseball," Trump famously said in 1984.

The USFL won its lawsuit in 1986, but was only awarded $1 in damages. Its teams did not play another season.

Bids and tweets

Trump once described USFL ownership as "a way of getting, as one alternative, into the NFL inexpensively." After that method failed, he missed out on at least two other chances to own an NFL team.

In 1988, he reportedly passed up a chance to buy the New England Patriots when he did not want to take on debt from the previous owners. In 2014, he lost a bidding war for the Buffalo Bills, a team that eventually went to Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula for $1.4 billion.

Trump appeared highly interested in the spring of 2014. He tweeted several quotes from people including the former Generals running back Walker saying he would make a good NFL owner.

Trump tweet

Then, months later after he lost out on the team, he claimed he only bid on the Bills to "make sure they stayed in Buffalo." Trump also said he was "glad [he] didn't get the Bills" because NFL games became "boring" due to an emphasis on player safety.

Trump tweet

Trump tweet

A push to make the league safer was only one of the reasons Trump targeted the NFL before the protest issue surfaced. In 2014, he pushed for an end to the NFL's non-profit status and what he called "the giant tax scam which makes teams so valuable."

Trump tweet

The following year, Trump urged Patriots superstar Tom Brady — whom the president considers a friend — to sue the NFL and "make lots of $." A report had just concluded it was "more probable than not" that the team manipulated footballs to have lower air pressure during a Patriots playoff win. The incident was known as "DeflateGate" and eventually led to a four-game suspension for Brady following a legal fight.

Trump tweet

Bashing the NFL over protests may have "diminishing returns" for Trump now, Pearlman said. But he noted that the president could fall back on other points of NFL criticism, including penalties for violent hits, as the league continues to tweak rules in attempts to address concerns about player safety.

Full-contact politics

Trump's time owning the Generals foreshadowed his self-promotional tactics and animosity toward the NFL. Pearlman sees other parallels between the president's political career and ownership of the football team.

In 1985, the Generals signed Flutie to a six-year, $8.3 million contract, then ridiculously rich for pro football, according to the book. Trump, who viewed the quarterback as a marketing coup for the league, "failed to initially share" that "he expected the rest of the USFL's owners to help foot the Flutie bill," Pearlman writes.

Trump then deployed his "spokesman" John Barron — who was actually the developer himself in a thinly disguised voice — to put pressure on his fellow owners in the press.

"When a guy goes out and spends more money than a player is worth, he expects to get partial reimbursement from the other owners. Everybody asked Trump to go out and sign Flutie ... for the good of the league," Trump, as Barron, is quoted as saying in a United Press International report.

None of the other owners bit. Pearlman saw a similarity to when Trump repeatedly promised Mexico would pay for his proposed wall on the southern U.S. border, only to get rebuffed repeatedly by the Mexican government.

Rivals named John

Pearlman also noticed parallels through Trump's relationship with two of his antagonists — both named John. John Bassett, owner of the Tampa Bay Bandits, fought Trump's efforts to move the USFL to the fall. But he lost some of his ability to push back against Trump after he was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1985.

"John Bassett had Trump 100 percent figured out," Bandits announcer Charley Steiner says in the book. "He saw through everything. But his brain cancer was a fundamental game changer in the life and sadly, death of the league. When he got sick, Donald stomped all over him."

Bassett died in 1986.

In a relationship with considerably bigger stakes for millions of people in the United States, Trump also slammed a frequent critic in Sen. John McCain after his brain cancer diagnosis last year. Pearlman sees parallels in Trump's treatment of McCain, who died last month.

Bassett's relationship with Trump provides one of the more colorful interactions involving the 45th president in Pearlman's book. In a letter to the Generals owner in 1984, Bassett called out Trump for "insensitive and denigrating comments" to the league's commissioner and owners.

"You are bigger, younger and stronger than I, which means I'll have no regrets whatsoever punching you right in the mouth the next time an instance occurs where you personally scorn me, or anyone else who does not happen to salute and dance to your tune," Bassett wrote.