I’m a happily married man. Most of the time. My wife and I argue sometimes. When you’ve been married forever, some days you just ain’t having it. Lindsay thinks she’s right about everything. I know for a fact that I am right about everything. Those two philosophies don’t always dovetail perfectly, as it turns out.
It’s during those moments when I sometimes wonder how different my life would have been if Donald Trump hadn’t bought the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League. Because if Trump hadn’t happened to the USFL, the popular spring football league may very well have been a success. And that would have made all the difference in my wife’s life trajectory — and mine, and that of our kids.
Sure, the USFL had its struggles. New sports leagues do. But they had a great hook — spring football. The USFL filled a void the NFL could not. From 1983 through 1985, the nascent USFL featured later NFL legends like Reggie White, Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Sam Mills, Gary Zimmerman, and two star players for Trump’s Generals: Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker. The product was good. Television contracts were secured with ABC and a fledgling cable outfit called ESPN.
Say hello to Harry
In the picture above, you can’t help but notice a younger, yet still irredeemably arrogant-looking Donald Trump on the right. The man on the left is far more interesting to me. That man is Harry Usher, the final commissioner of the USFL. Harry Usher was my wife’s father.
I never met Harry. Harry died before my wife and I met. But the presence of Harry and the course of his life greatly impacts my life to this day.
Let’s go back to the image. First thought: Is it just me or was Donald Trump’s face even more punchable then than it seems now? Tough call, that one. Second, clearly, both men are talking. Is there any doubt that Harry was asked a question and Trump is just talking anyway?
For all the cult of personality built up around the myth that is Donald Trump, it’s easy to overlook individuals that are or were Trump satellites at one time. As the USFL’s commissioner, Harry Usher was one.
By all accounts, Harry was a gregarious, forceful personality, and an accomplished attorney and sports executive. He was credited with making the troubled 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games an unexpected financial success. He was ambitious, handsome, smart, capable, hard-working and privileged — an American success story. He was a dreamer, a big-thinker and he knew how to make things happen. He was a leader and a restless soul in search of new worlds to conquer. He was flawed. He was good. Play a John Denver song and my wife will get weepy at the memories she has of singing along with Harry. He is still deeply loved.
I wish I could have met him. I have many questions.
And Harry, like the rest of the USFL’s executives and team owners, were overrun by Donald Trump. That turned out to be one of the luckiest breaks of my life.
The butterfly effect
Time travel is not real. But that doesn’t stop our fascination with it and all the accompanying what-ifs. If all of the stars of literature, television, theater and film did not go back in time to kill Adolph Hitler, but instead went back in time to implant a sense of decency, actual business acumen and empathy in the fetus that would become Donald Trump, how different would your life be? Probably not as different as mine.
Had Trump not become the full-sized, semi-human embodiment of a steaming ego shart, the USFL had a good chance of succeeding. Instead, the ruthlessly opportunistic Trump followed the Trump brand: Buy something, slap your name on it in big gold letters, kill it and move on. Trump has filed for bankruptcies on his casinos — the single-greatest way to print money short of owning your own nation and mint — no less than three times.
Remember that Trump did not start the USFL. He did not even stick with his team, having founded the Generals and then quickly sold them to Oklahoma oil magnate J. Walter Duncan, and minority partner former New England Patriots coach Chuck Fairbanks. Trump reportedly wanted to focus on his casino businesses, because that’s where he could make even more prof- … never mind.
In a fateful move, Trump re-acquired the distressed Generals with the intention of using his influence as a franchise owner to leverage the USFL into a merger with the behemoth NFL. He demanded that the USFL abandon its unique spring schedule and attempt to compete head-to-head with the NFL in the fall.
Trump’s real intention had nothing to do with seeing the USFL succeed. He intended to kill it. His ambition was merely to force the NFL to absorb a handful of USFL teams into the almost impossibly lucrative NFL, the New Jersey Generals being at the top of that very short and very unreal list.
It didn’t happen.
Lawyers, judges & juries — oh my
Trump’s gambit (to be fair, he convinced 11 of the other 13 USFL owners to vote for his very risky merger plan) proved to be a disaster soon after its announcement. From Wikipedia: “Within a few weeks of the decision, the USFL had been forced to abandon four lucrative markets, abort a move to a fifth and suspend operations in a sixth. In hindsight, this destroyed the USFL’s viability.” The USFL turned to the courts for one last gasp.
Legal history was made when the USFL sued the NFL over antitrust violations. Claiming the NFL colluded to influence ABC, CBS and NBC to not broadcast USFL games and also to withhold access to certain stadiums, the USFL won their case. On July 29, 1986, the six-person jury delivered a verdict that declared the NFL a “duly adjudicated illegal monopoly,” and found that the NFL had willfully acquired and maintained monopoly status in professional football through predatory tactics.
The victory was pyrrhic. The jury awarded a single dollar (trebled under U.S. antitrust law verdict rules to $3, plus 76 cents in interest) and the USFL was effectively done.
Marital history was also made. With the USFL in shambles, Harry’s tenure with the league ended in 1987 and he moved on to other career stops until his death in 2000. He never again reached the career heights of organizing the 1984 Olympic Games or helming a professional football league.
Had Harry successfully shepherded the USFL to either ongoing viability or a merger with the NFL, his remaining years would have had a far different trajectory. As would have the life opportunities presented to my wife, the eldest child of Harry and Jo Usher’s four children. As the scion of a rich and successful sports executive, Lindsay Usher certainly would not have ever ended up married to the likes of me, your humble writer.
And for that, I offer my deep gratitude to Donald Trump.
The main image at the top (from the Associated Press) gets trotted out occasionally, when we need to be reminded of Trump’s long history of disastrous, self-serving moves of ruination. Remember the man on the left was Harry Usher. Remember also that I have my wife and family because Donald Trump ruined Harry’s career, and those of many others.
I wonder if they’re as grateful as I am?
© julian rogers