Scathing, action-packed account of the rise and fall of spring football in the 1980s, with a familiar villain to the piece.
In 1961, writes Pearlman (Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre, 2016, etc.), a New Orleans–based art dealer and entrepreneur named David Dixon wondered why it was that the National Football League was so resistant to expanding outside of its existing franchises. His solution: to build a league for play in the “vast sports wasteland” of spring in those years before March Madness. Five years later, the United States Football League was born, though it would take another decade and a half before anything substantial came of it. The newborn league had rules meant to level the field among rich and poor teams, including caps on salaries and limits on how they were distributed among star players and workhorses. Said one team owner at the time, “we had a gentleman’s agreement,” adding, “of course, that’s only OK as long as you have gentlemen agreeing.” Enter Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey franchise, who immediately began breaking those agreements and demanding that other owners subsidize him even as he revealed the depths of his ignorance about the game. Trump also began to press for the USFL to play not in spring but in fall, going up against the NFL and prompting speculation that he was really after an NFL franchise to call his own. In the end, the USFL collapsed—though, as Pearlman notes, it lives on in unexpected ways, including Trump’s arrival in the White House. “Thirty-three years after insisting his fellow owners would pay for Doug Flutie,” writes the author, “he was insisting Mexico would pay for a border wall.” If nothing else, Pearlman’s fluently told story provides context for why the sitting president holds the NFL in such contempt—and why the sentiment should be richly returned.
Gridiron fans of all stripes will find this a fascinating exercise in the collision of money, entertainment, politics, and ego.