Donald Trump is doing to the GOP exactly what he did to the USFL

Thirty years ago, a rival league threatened to supplant the NFL. It might have succeeded were it not for Trump

Published May 20, 2016 8:30AM (EDT)

Donald Trump   (AP/Dennis Van Tine)
Donald Trump (AP/Dennis Van Tine)

This originally appeared on ProPublica. It has been corrected since it first published.

ProPublica I didn’t get to do a lot of original reporting in 1985 as a clerk on United Press International’s sports desk in New York. My job was to move copy and box scores to our client newspapers as fast as possible, and so every night I took dictation from sportswriters around the country – at baseball stadiums or at ringside, at the racetrack or inside the arena.

Thirty years later, it seems likely I also took a bit of dictation from a man with a shot to be the next president of the United States.

You might well have heard in the last couple of days of Donald Trump’s apparent habit of acting as his own spokesman. A variety of news accounts have recalled Trump using the aliases John Barron or John Miller while posing as a fictitious spokesman for his organizations. Trump has denied doing so in at least one of the cited instances. Then again, it appears he also admitted to the ruse in a sworn deposition years ago. Over the weekend, it seemed hard for either Trump’s supporters or his critics to know exactly what to make of it all. The only consensus seems to be that, if true, it was more weird than anything else.

Now, let’s back up a bit farther. In 1985, Trump was the owner of the New Jersey Generals, a team in the fledgling United States Football League. The teams played in the spring and summer, and the league was meant to be a rival to the National Football League. Trump, unsurprisingly perhaps, became known for high-profile player signings, one of his most expensive being the acquisition of Doug Flutie, the Boston College quarterback who had won the Heisman Trophy. Soon enough – again perhaps not surprisingly – Trump wanted to re-visit the Flutie deal. He wanted the owners of the other teams in the USFL to chip in to cover the costs of his quarterback.

That, then, is how I came to write this dispatch on April 1, 1985.

NEW YORK – New Jersey Generals owner Donald Trump has asked the other USFL owners to provide ‘partial reimbursement’ for quarterback Doug Flutie’s multi-million dollar contract, a spokesman for Trump said Monday.

John Barron, a vice president of the Trump Organization, said the New Jersey owner wanted the other owners to honor an agreement reached earlier this year before Trump signed Flutie to a 5-year contract worth between $5 and $8 million.

“When a guy goes out and spends more money than a player is worth, he expects to get partial reimbursement from the other owners,” Barron said of Trump’s signing of Flutie.

The story went on to quote Barron saying that the other owners had agreed to assist Trump before Flutie was signed, and that Trump was merely calling in the chit. The story quoted Barron acknowledging that the other owners might not pony up, but that it was important for Trump to call them out because he wanted “the record to reflect” the truth behind the terms of the Flutie deal.

I can’t remember when I first came to believe Barron was in fact Trump. It’s not inconceivable that Trump told me himself. I know I had thought at the time that I’d rarely dealt with such a frank and forthcoming spokesman. And I know I have told the story to family and friends for years. David Tucker, who was sports editor at UPI in 1985, told me this week that some reporters wondered if Barron was actually Trump himself. But he, like me, remains as stumped today as we were years ago about why Trump might have engaged in his charade.

The Trump news cycle has quickly rolled on, the flap just another seemingly minor hiccup in a run of remarkable political success for the presumptive Republican nominee.

For me, the episode, more than anything else, has felt like a bad acid flashback. Strange days indeed. That said, it’s been kind of fascinating re-familiarizing myself with Trump’s role in the USFL. Esquire in January published a kind of oral history of the USFL highlighting Trump’s role. But I think this chapter in Trump’s much-examined life could use some more attention.

I am not a scholar of the USFL, but some refresher reading suggests Trump was his trademark self from the beginning to the end of the ill-fated league.

The launch of the league in the early 1980s seemed well timed, with the NFL facing labor trouble. The idea was to play during the NFL’s off-season. There was some initial success – 12 teams, television deals with ABC and ESPN, the signing of stars such as Herschel Walker and Flutie and Reggie White and Jim Kelly. But it appears to have been a combustible upstart league, as well. There was expansion, but also mergers and strategic disagreements, worries about over-spending and shifting ownership.

Trump appears to have been something of a lightning rod.

Adam Rank, writing on the NFL Network’s website several years ago, put it this way:

“It should have worked,” he said of the USFL. “Hell, it would have worked were it not for Donald Trump.”

Trump purchased the Generals in 1983 but wound up flipping the team not unlike a real estate holding – selling it after the league’s first year only to then buy it back a short time later. His pursuit of high-priced stars annoyed and unnerved some of his fellow owners. My quick scan of history does not reveal whether the other owners ever helped out Trump with his obligations to Flutie. Whether that holds any meaning for Trump’s ability to re-negotiate trade or arms deals as president is beyond me. In the end, though, it appears that the eventual death of the league has been linked by many to Trump’s desire to directly challenge the NFL, a gambit that involved playing a fall schedule and that ended in litigation and debts in the tens of millions of dollars.

Arash Markazi, a senior writer at ESPN, published a post in July 2015 titled, “5 Things to Know About Donald Trump’s Foray Into Doomed USFL.” One was that the Generals under Trump were a pretty good team. Another, however, was that “Trump is widely blamed for the demise of the USFL.”

The USFL sued the NFL, asserting it was an illegal monopoly. A jury, it seems, kind of agreed. But when it came to awarding damages, it gave the USFL $1. It seems the jury thought the USFL had behaved badly, as well, in part by trying force a merger with the NFL, a tactic apparently supported by Trump.

In the Esquire story, Charlie Steiner, the former play-by-play announcer for Trump’s Generals, offered his own emphatic summation:

“You can cut and paste the USFL and the GOP and it’s the same damn story. It’s all about him and the brand and moving on to the next thing if it doesn’t work out.”

I sent two emails to Hope Hicks, Trump’s spokeswoman, seeking comment on my dealings back in 1985 and Trump’s role in the short life of the USFL. I have yet to receive a response.

I did find a New York Daily News item quoting Trump as saying he’d been the victim of “a lot of false press on the USFL.”

That may have to suffice for now. I do not, after all, have an email address for John Barron.

By Joe Sexton

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Donald Trump Gop John Barron Propublica United States Football League Usfl