Remembering how Donald Trump helped crash an entire football league

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It may be tough to fathom today, but in the early 1980s, the NFL had serious competition from a rival pro football league. The USFL, founded in 1982, was a spring/summer league that managed to sway some of the NCAA's best talent away from the NFL.

Sporting the talents of Herschel Walker and Jim Kelly, the league eventually expanded to eight teams in just a handful of seasons. Its highlights aired regularly on ESPN, and players even appeared on their very own trading cards.

While its rapid rise to prominence was, and remains, unheralded in major pro sports, the USFL burned down even quicker than it was built.

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Just four years after its inception, the league found itself inevitably batting the NFL in court. In fact, it even managed to convince a jury that the NFL was guilty of monopolizing pro football in America.

The award handed out on July 29, 1986? One dollar in damages. The USFL sought $1.7 billion.

The decision came just months before the league was set to open its first fall season -- competing head-to-head with the NFL.

The six-member jury determined that the NFL was a "duly adjudicated illegal monopoly," but was not guilty of the primary claim the USFL insisted: bullying the major television networks into refusing to air USFL games.

Four days after the ruling, the league announced it would suspend operation for the 1986 fall season, with the intention of returning for 1987. Roughly $160 million in debt, and with most of its players under contract with NFL teams, the USFL extended its hiatus through 1987. It would never host another game again.


Donald Trump and Steve Ross

The ill-fated move to the fall season was the brainchild of Donald Trump, then owner of the New Jersey Generals. He was an advocate for the move as early as 1983, as soon as the league wrapped up its first spring season.

"If God wanted football in the spring," Trump said, "he wouldn't have created baseball."

With several teams in financial trouble, the USFL's attempt to go head-to-head with the NFL in court was viewed as a last-ditch effort to finance the league.

That dollar prize, though, just wasn't enough. The USFL was no more by 1987, and the NFL has gone unchallenged ever since.

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- By John Dorn

See photos of the USFL's brief history

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FILE - In this March 7, 1983, file photo, New Jersey Generals linebacker Ray Costict (55) attempts a tackle on Los Angeles Express running back Tony Boddie, right, during the second quarter of a USFL football game in Los Angeles. The New England Patriots announced on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2012, that former Patriots player Ray Costict died Tuesday, Jan. 3 at the age of 56. Costict spent his entire NFL career with the Patriots from 1977-79, primarily as a special teams player. (AP Photo/Doug Pizac, File)
** FILE ** Former USFL Memphis Showboats defensive back Reggie White, right, speaks during a news conference after signing with the Philadelphia Eagles as Eagles owner Norman Braman, left, looks on in this Sept. 20, 1985 file photo in Philadelphia. White, a fearsome defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles and Green Bay Packers who was one of the great players in NFL history, died Sunday, his wife said. He was 43. (AP Photo/Peter Morgan)
New York Jets owner Leon Hess, right, waves to photographers as he and NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle appear at the NFL owners meeting in New York, Aug 13, 1986. The owners discussed possible moves in the wake of the USFL suspending their season. Included on the agenda was expanding each team's player limit from 45 to 49 players. (AP Photo/Mario Surani)
Quarterback Chuck Fusina (14) of the Baltimore Stars passes a 79-yard touchdown to teammate Victor Harrison in the first quarter against the Oakland Invaders during their USFL game at Qakland Coliseum, March 3, 1985. The Stars' George Gilbert (63) blocks out Invaders' Ray Bentley. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie poses with New Jersey Generals head coach Walt Michaels, left, and General's owner, Donald Trump, at a news conference in New York, Feb. 5, 1985. An official announcement was made that Flutie signed a multi-million-dollar pact with the USFL team. (AP Photo/Marty Lederhandler)
Quarterback Doug Flutie of the New Jersey Generals, favors his left shoulder as he walks off the field with trainer Gerry Schwille after being injured during the USFL game against the Memphis Showboats at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., June 4, 1985. Flutie's first season as a pro quarterback has been much rougher than most imagined. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)
Arizona Wranglers fullback Kevin Long (33) stumbles through the line for three yards and a first down in the second quarter of the USFL playoff game in Houston, Sunday, July 1, 1984. Houston Gamblers Pete Caton (77) is being blocked out. (AP Photo)
Los Angeles Express quarterback Steve Young (8) breaks through the line scrambling for 13 yards and a first down during the first quarter of the USFL game in the Astrodome on Monday, May 1, 1984 in Houston, Tx. Houston Gamblers nose guard Tony Fitzpatrick, left, is blocked on the play. Express center Mike Ruether (57) is there to help. Los Angeles won 27-24 in overtime. (AP Photo/F. Carter Smith)
FEBRUARY 1985: Quarterback Jim Kelly #12 of the Houston Gamblers scrambles during a 1985 season USFL game. (Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)
Sports executives from left: Donald Trump, New Jersey Generals of the USFL; Fred Wilpon, New York Mets; Sonny Werblin, Madison Square Garden; and George Steinbrenner, New York Yankees, gather for the New York Post Forum breakfast, Thursday, Dec. 15, 1983 in New York. The New Jersey Generals plan to formally announce on Friday the signing of Walt Michaels as their new head coach, Trump said. (AP Photo/David Pickoff)
University of Miami quarterback Jim Kelly is all smiles at his press conference, Thursday, June 10, 1983 after signing a multi-year contract with the new USFL franchise, the Houston Gamblers. His college teammate running back Mark Rush also signed with the Gamblers. Both were drafted by NFL clubs. (AP Photo/F. Carter Smith)
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