“There were some real red flags,” former Memphis Showboats GM Steve Ehrhart tells Jeff Pearlman at one point in this book. “We probably should have paid closer attention.” Ehrhart was talking about Clinton Manges, owner of the franchise, but it could apply to so many of the calamitous or plain bizarre decisions that abound in Pearlman’s history of the short-lived United States Football League.
Further reading: Jeff Pearlman interview
Throughout its history, the NFL has periodically been challenged by other football leagues. The most successful, the AFL, ran through the 1960s and eventually merged with the older league to form the NFL of the Super Bowl era. The USFL, which ran for three seasons between 1983 and 1985 was different because it was a spring league. It didn’t seek to compete directly with the NFL but to establish itself during a time of year when there is no football.
Pearlman argues that the USFL had a chance to survive but was derailed by the interventions of Donald Trump, now US President. Trump had been repeatedly rejected as an NFL owner and saw the USFL as his way in. He bought the New Jersey Generals, intending to persuade USFL owners to shift the league to the autumn, in direct competition with the NFL, and then somehow force a merger. Effectively gaining access to the NFL via the back door.
Unfortunately, in a warning from history that went unheeded, Trump’s promises were lost in a blizzard of lies, incompetence and bravado.
His plan failed; Trump forced a lawsuit against the NFL and the USFL won but were awarded just a dollar in damages. Without the cash to fund its autumn move, the USFL suspended play shortly after the verdict. There were various attempts to rescue the league but it eventually disbanded.
Though Trump was the driving force behind the trial, Pearlman suggests he was also a significant reason why it failed. He quotes Frank Rothman, the NFL’s lead attorney:
“The more I developed the strategy, the more I wanted Donald Trump as my fall guy. I would call it Donald versus Goliath. I would make their scheme Donald’s plan, which it was. I would show that Donald Trump is not a little lightweight; he is one of the richest men in America… He was such a lousy witness for them, and a great one for us.”
As a boy, Pearlman fell in love with the colour and excitement of the USFL and he brings that to life on the page. The book moves at a frenetic pace, with a wild cast of characters and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of hilarious stories. There’s coach Pepper Rodgers, naked and smoking a joint in his hotel room, Boston head coach Dick Coury calling plays submitted by fans and an unnamed player slamming his penis in a trunk.
Pearlman has a nose for these kinds of stories and delivers them with a true sense of their ridiculousness. At times his comic timing is sublime, as with my favourite line in the whole book:
“Our nickname for Mora on the team was ‘Dick,'” said one Stars player. Why? “Because he was a dick.”
With a phenomenal cast of characters and a story that frequently defies belief, Football for a Buck is a huge success and an essential read for football fans.
Photo: My Army Reserve