As its third season drew to a close, the United States Soccer League filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL, alleging that it had established a monopoly over television broadcast rights. The lawsuit was spearheaded by Donald Trump, the owner of the New Jersey Generals who was convinced his league would win and force a merger with the NFL as a result. Held over 42 days in the United States District Court in Manhattan, it was one of the most anticipated trials in modern sports history. and the usfl seemed to have a good opportunity, until trump stepped forward…
lead nfl attorney frank rothman used an approach that was 180 degrees opposite of [usfl attorney harvey] myerson. he didn’t hit people. he didn’t yell, he ranted, he growled. Rothman, a distinguished 59-year-old with broad shoulders and gray hair, was the former CEO of MGM/UA Entertainment and exuded a natural dignity. he sat back, let myerson do his dance (as the entity that spearheaded the lawsuit, the usfl was the first to call witnesses), and then meticulously set about making the nfl’s case that the usfl, in moving to fall, he dug his own grave. “They had everything their way at first,” Rothman said. “They had the jury they wanted. they clinched at the harvard [presentation]. myerson was pitching the little ones against the big ones. he would come back and say to the people of the nfl, ‘listen, when we get our turn, we can start to turn this around.’ we have to be patient,’ but it didn’t really take that long.”
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From the opening day of the trial, Rothman has asked himself a single question: who is my bad boy? he was looking for someone the jury would find hard to believe and even harder to please. he was looking for someone with false bravado, with arrogance, with indifference. he didn’t want the jury to think of a sad little league going up against a mighty machine. no, he wanted the jury to see that the usfl, damn sympathy, was his own frankenstein. “The more I developed the strategy,” he said, “the more I wanted Donald Trump as my scapegoat. i would call it donald versus goliath. I would make his scheme Donald’s plan, which it was. it would show that donald trump is not a little light; he is one of the richest men in america. . . It was a terrible testimonial for them and a great one for us.”
“The way myerson set it up was perfect for [rothman],” ehrhart said. “it was a great donald trump who tried to screw over the poor people in the nfl, who had worked so hard to build their league.”
early in the process, usfl called pete rozelle, the nfl commissioner, to testify as the first witness in the trial. Over the course of five endless days, Myerson pounded rozelle, pounded rozelle, roasted rozelle. In particular, he focused on Trump’s claim that the NFL Commissioner promised him a franchise in the event that he left/damaged the USFL. There was, both sides agreed, a meeting held between Trump and Rozelle at the Pierre Hotel in March 1984. What happened, however, was controversial.
“didn’t you tell mr. trump you wish he could have bought baltimore colts and not gone to usfl? myerson asked.
“no”, answered rozelle.
“did you tell him that if he hadn’t gone to usfl, usfl would have died?” myerson asked.
“no,” rozelle said. “never.”
Trump’s testimony was decidedly different. He said the hotel appointment was Rozelle’s idea, recalling the commissioner saying, “You’ll have a good shot at getting an NFL franchise, and you’ll actually get an NFL franchise.” The trade-off, according to Trump, was for USFL to stay in the spring and “not file a lawsuit.”
trump insisted that he and rozelle were friends. Rozelle insisted that he and Trump were certainly not friends. Trump insisted that Rozelle wanted him in the NFL. Rozelle insisted that he would rather a maggot-infected fungus take over his cranial lobe. “Rozelle told me that he should be in the NFL, not the USFL,” Trump said. “At some point, he said, he would be in the NFL. then he reiterated that the usfl was not going to achieve it.”
Rozelle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. She made it clear that it was Trump who booked and paid for Pierre’s suite. told rothman: “[trump] said, ‘i want an nfl expansion team in new york.’ team at the usfl.’” unlike trump, rozelle took meticulous notes and presented her documented recollections of the meeting.
Rothman’s cross-examination was an impressive ode to getting to know your subject and taking him apart, piece by piece. wrote richard hoffer of the angel times: “rothman characterized trump as the worst kind of snake he was selling to his colleagues down the river so he could merge some rich teams.” It wasn’t Trump’s words, but his arrogance and irritability. the usfl was little league trying to be big, but trump didn’t seem small. or nice. or, for that matter, believable.
“it didn’t go well for usfl”, recalled patricia sibilia, a member of the jury. “donald trump and i actually got into a staring match. she watched the people on the dais, trying to read them. so me and him started looking at each other, and he tried to stare at me. it was an obvious attempt at intimidation. And the funny thing, in hindsight, is that this so-called business genius blew it for him. he was not believable in anything he said. he was arrogant and obnoxious.”
Rozelle’s cold, controlled testimony was kryptonite for trump’s seemingly unhinged allergies to the truth. Rothman repeatedly asked what prompted Trump’s actions, then showed the jury multiple documents, signed or written by the Generals’ owner, that alluded to a “merger” and a “merger strategy.” trump denied that his motive was for usfl and nfl to become one, but he lacked credibility. “It was so obvious what this was all about,” Sibilia said. “no doubt”.
when rothman suggested that trump’s ultimate goal was to take down a valuable nfl organization, the response was staggering. “I could have gotten into the NFL a lot easier than doing this exercise,” he said. “I could have spent the extra money and bought the foals many times.”
A historic level of rolling eyes filled the courtroom. trump was lying. he was never a serious candidate to buy the foals. never. “who do you believe?” Associated Press’s Dave Goldberg wrote, “Donald Trump or Pete Rozelle?”
It wasn’t difficult.
“It was kind of hard to watch,” said Jerry Argovitz, owner of the Houston Gamblers. “donald did not love usfl. to him, they were small potatoes. which is terrible, because we had a great league and a great idea. but then everyone let donald trump take over. it was our death.”
Although often immune to criticism, Trump seemed aware that the trial was not going according to plan. it was being used by the nfl, and it hurt. “All the reporters would run to nearby payphones on breaks to ask for information,” said Bob Ley, covering the trial for ESPN. “one day i walked into a phone booth, donald walked into an adjacent one. and he is absolutely fucking someone on the other end of the line.”
on July 29, 1986, at exactly 3:55 p.m. m., patrick bowes, the clerk of the court, announced that the verdict was near. Jurors, tired, battered, and emotionally drained after five days (31 total hours) of deliberation, entered Courtroom 318. Behind the scenes, the six jurors had engaged in several heated battles. there was screaming, there was barking, there was crying. “It was very high pressure,” Sibilia said. “The court puts pressure on you because it wants everything to end. both sides pressure you because they think they’re right. we all had our own notes highlighting different things. it was never hostile, but it was defiant.” three jurors favored the nfl, three favored the usfl. Patricia McCabe, an AT&T referral employee, suffered from heart murmurs. miriam sanchez, a high school english teacher, had excruciating headaches as well as heart palpitations. “We weren’t getting anywhere,” Sanchez said. “We yelled at each other, we insulted each other. They called me frivolous. It’s the worst name I’ve ever been called.”
“at one point, mrs. sanchez and [juror bernez r stephens, a nursing assistant from the bronx born in the west indies] were sitting on the couch in the jury room, while the rest of us we were sitting around the table,” Lilienfeld recalled. “We were having a strong debate on a particular point. I said, ‘why don’t you join the two of us up here? they seem to be a minority’. when I said that, one of them jumped up and said: ‘yes, I am a minority!’, he had misunderstood my words. . I didn’t mean to say anything other than that she was in the minority of voters. she had nothing to do with race or ethnicity. but that was an example of the tension in that room.”
Although Rothman believed the case went well, he had been involved in previous trials that he also thought had gone well, only to suffer a shocking defeat. “It wasn’t like we all knew what was about to be announced,” said Gary Myers, who covered the trial for the Dallas Morning News. “It was real suspense.”
So now, with the courtroom packed and silent, Judge Peter K Leisure asked McCabe if the jury was ready.
“yes, your honor,” she said. “we are”.
He handed a piece of paper to the judge, who looked down and cleared his throat. everyone in the courtroom was on their feet. Myerson and his colleagues sat at a table near the front of the room. Rothman and Fiske, his associate attorney, were directly behind them at another table. “The first question,” said Leisure, “is, ‘Do you think the NFL monopolized the business of professional football, yes or no?’
“the answer is, ‘yes'”.
myerson smiled like a kid receiving a bag of m&ms. this would be exceptional…
A series of 27 questions followed, asking if the various NFL clubs (excluding the Davis Raiders) were indebted to the monopoly.
“yes” was said 27 times.
myerson could barely contain his euphoria. My God! My God! My God! several reporters present bolted from the room to bring the news to their offices. this was shocking. the national soccer league was found guilty of violating an antitrust law. according to the jury, he had monopolized professional football and had deliberately acquired his monopoly power. Yes, the jury acquitted the NFL of the other eight counts. But for a brief period, the radio and television media reported that the United States Soccer League had… won!
what followed was… “shocking,” argovitz said. “Unfathomable,” Myerson said. “emotional,” said rozelle. “confused,” the usher said.
“Very, very strange,” said Larry Csonka, senior vice president of the Jacksonville Bulls. “I mean, really weird.”
“I [was] in graduate school at lasalle,” said star quarterback chuck fusina. “I was in a finance class and a guy came up to me and said, ‘Hey Chuck, you guys won the lawsuit.’ I said, ‘Hey, that’s great.’ I ran up to the teacher and said, ‘Let me I use the phone.’ I wanted to call my wife and tell her the good news. I called my wife and she was a little down. I asked her, ‘what’s wrong?’ she said, ‘did you hear the deal?’”
“my wife and i were driving to notre dame and we heard the news on the radio,” said jim russ, the tampa bay outlaws trainer. “I looked at my wife, my wife looked at me. I said, ‘holy cow, we won! We won!’ and then the radio went off.”
“We were in a conference room when the verdict was delivered,” said ginger lacey, public relations assistant for the orlando renegades. “Bugsy Engelberg was our general manager and he got the call that we won. he just starts screaming and yelling. Bugsy was a big guy, and I thought he was about to have a heart attack at that point.”
“I had a lot of friends in the nfl, and when they heard the first part of the verdict they were terrified,” said carl peterson, general manager of the stars. “It was clear to everyone listening that the NFL was in big trouble.”
Rozelle had not made it to the courtroom in time for the verdict. he was stuck in traffic, listening to the trial on wcbs radio, which he was broadcasting live. his car was on 23rd street and the announcer said, “the national soccer league has been found guilty”. an irate rozelle ordered the driver to turn the car around and take it back to the league offices.
And yet, in less than five minutes, usfl joy was replaced by usfl horror, and nfl horror was replaced by nfl joy. After confirming that yes, the NFL had broken the law, the jury awarded damages of…$1.
yes, a dollar.
“Actually, $3,” said david cataneo, who covered the trial for the boston herald. “The damages in the antitrust laws are tripled.”
Rozelle turned the car around again and sped toward the courthouse. Trump, already there, was sitting next to John Mara, the son of New York Giants owner Wellington Mara. When the words “one dollar” emerged from the lips of leisure, the young mara took a $1 bill from his wallet and handed it to the owner of the generals. Trump’s sunken expression was worth the price.
thanks to myerson and trump and a strategy that made little to no sense, usfl walked out of the courtroom with $3 to its name. “I covered that trial, and you had to hate Trump,” said Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, who hosted the Renegades postgame show. “I just never saw how anyone liked me.” sibilia couldn’t get over two things: (1) usfl’s dysfunction was the biggest culprit for the league’s failings, and (2) trump was horrible. “He was extremely arrogant and I thought he was obviously trying to play the game. I wanted an nfl franchise…usfl was a cheap way to get in.”
although the nfl was eventually forced to pay the usfl $5.5 million in attorneys’ fees, the money was too little to keep the young entity afloat.
thanks to donald trump’s selfishness and narcissism, the united states soccer league was dead.
this is an excerpt from football for a buck: usfl’s crazy rise and crazy demise. Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Pearlman. Reprinted with permission from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. all rights reserved.