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opinion | Gerald Eskenazi

Donald Trump’s football dreams

Donald Trump (left) attended a breakfast forum about the future of professional sports in the New York metropolitan area in 1983. Pictured with him (from left) are Fred Wilpon of the Mets, Sonny Werblin of Madison Square Garden, and George Steinbrenner of the Yankees.
Donald Trump (left) attended a breakfast forum about the future of professional sports in the New York metropolitan area in 1983. Pictured with him (from left) are Fred Wilpon of the Mets, Sonny Werblin of Madison Square Garden, and George Steinbrenner of the Yankees.(David Pickoff/Associated Press/file)

They all felt Donald Trump had gone too far — that maybe some of his grandiose schemes and outrageous comments would hurt their cause. But few, if any, said anything publicly.

I’m talking, of course, about football.

This was 1983, and Donald Trump was doing spectacularly. He was only 37 years old. He was a big man in New York not only for his string of real estate coups, but for having rebuilt the iconic ice skating rink in Central Park — a moldering symbol of government’s inability to get something done that had deteriorated for years. Within months, Trump fixed it up.

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Then he decided to buy a football team. They were the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, which had just finished its first season as a more modest, summertime league to fill the warm-weather-months void for pro football fans.

The Donald got his team for about $7 million, but before the ink was dried on the contracts, he started bloviating about going head-to-head in the fall with the monstrous National Football League. The other USFL owners cringed. They saw themselves as a boutique operation, and certainly not about to spend the money needed to compete with the NFL. At the time, I was a sportswriter for The New York Times, and the USFL’s operations director told me, “He’s going to kill this league if he gets into a bidding war. But don’t quote me.”

But Trump couldn’t be stopped. He explained to me, “I believe in a Tiffany-type operation; I believe in Fifth Avenue.” In other words, he wasn’t going to be anyone’s poor relation on the wrong side of town.

Donald Trump.
Donald Trump.(Globe file photo 1983)

Within months of buying the club, Trump went looking for the best football player he could find. It turned out he was right next door: Lawrence Taylor, the New York Giants’ acclaimed linebacker. Taylor was still under a Giants contract, but Trump cleverly signed him to a personal-services deal in exchange for a $1 million loan. And when Taylor’s Giants contract expired, he was to join Trump’s team.

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I asked Trump about what would happen if the Generals went belly-up. Then wouldn’t he be in debt to Taylor, without a team for him to play on?

“If that happens,” Trump replied, “then I’ll put him in another uniform and make him a doorman in one of my buildings.”

Trump did get the last laugh, though. He got back his loan — and got the Giants to give him an additional $750,000 to break the deal with Taylor.

Then, after owning the team for one season, he drafted one of the most acclaimed players in college football history: Heisman Trophy winner Doug Flutie of Boston College. Trump gave Flutie a multiyear contract worth about $8 million — money the team didn’t have. But he had his Tiffany quarterback. Before long, Trump asked fellow owners to help pay for Flutie.

Now the other owners started to spend money as well, money none of them really had. Meanwhile, NFL players got quite rich because of the bidding wars. And then the USFL announced it would go to a fall season and compete head-to-head with the NFL in 1986.

It never happened. The league fell apart. In a last gasp, Trump spearheaded a half-billion-dollar antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. The major contention was that the NFL conspired with television networks to keep the USFL out of the picture.

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The trial’s denouement played out in a farce. Yes, the jury found, the NFL was guilty. But what were the damages? Why, they were $1 — trebled to $3, plus some pennies in interest. The reason was that, while the NFL might have had some monopolistic practices, the USFL died because of its own mismanagement.

Well, maybe Donald Trump didn’t make it to the NFL’s boardrooms. But that doesn’t mean he still isn’t dreaming of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., does it?

Gerald Eskenazi reported sports for The New York Times for more than 40 years. He is the author of 16 books, including a memoir, “A Sportswriter’s Life.”

Related:

Scot Lehigh: Trump finds sweet spot with GOP nativists, knuckleheads

John Sununu: Trump’s presidential bid has no downside for him

Marcela García: Trump galvanized the Latino community into action

Jeff Jacoby: From beyond the fringe, it’s Donald Trump. Again.

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