This may be an uncomfortable Super Bowl Sunday for President Trump. He may watch the New England Patriots and the Los Angeles Rams clash this evening and think about what might have been. That may be especially so given his interview with the New York Times last week, in which he says the presidency has been a financial blow.

“I lost massive amounts of money doing this job,” he told the Times. “This is not the money. This is one of the great losers of all time.”

That isn’t said about owning a team in the National Football League. In 1994, Robert Kraft bought the Patriots for $175 million. Today, the club is worth an estimated $3.8 billion. (The Rams are pegged at $3.2 billion.) Trump once made a run at buying the Patriots. As recently as 2014, he offered $1.4 billion for the Buffalo Bills. Neither pitch proved successful. Would he be president if one had?

So an NFL team has been a prize Trump has sought, and it is an earlier bid to join the league that resonates today, two years into his chaotic, damn-the-norms, dump-the-rules presidency. Remember when he purchased the New Jersey Generals of the still-at-its-start United States Football League?

The year was 1983. Trump brought his capacity for grabbing headlines, cheerleader tryouts at Trump Tower, big money thrown at big names, including Doug Flutie and Herschel Walker, two Heisman Trophy winners. Trump raised the profile of the league. He also wrecked its carefully laid plans.

The league owners chose to play in the spring to avoid the formidable NFL. They slowly but steadily would build an audience and a brand, aided by television contracts with ABC and the emerging ESPN. They introduced innovations, notably instant replay and touchdown celebrations. If all went well, one day they might confront the competition in the fall.

Trump wouldn’t wait. He persuaded enough owners to follow his gut and take the NFL to court alleging antitrust violations. The USFL argued the NFL contracts with the television networks monopolized fall football. Trump contended that a huge award for the victorious USFL would push the older league into a merger, the value of the USFL franchises soaring as a result.

A long trial ensued, and the jury sided with Trump and his fellow owners — to a point. It awarded damages of just $1, which tripled under antitrust law to $3. The jury saw through the strike-quick scheme.

As David Cay Johnston recalls in his book, “The Making of Donald Trump,” a federal appeals court delivered a lashing to Trump and colleagues, finding the USFL essentially sought “a judicial restructuring” of pro football. It advised that new leagues “must be prepared to make the investment of time, effort and money that develops interest and fan loyalty and results in an attractive product for the media.”

The appeals court found all that missing in the challenge. It added that the jury saw “the failure of the USFL was not the result of the NFL’s television contracts but of its own decision to seek entry into the NFL on the cheap.”

Telling today are the now familiar Trump moves. He has revised history, claiming to have entered the league to save it. He has been vague about the price he paid for the Generals, from $5 million to $9 million. He insisted without proof the NFL offered him a franchise if the USFL dropped the lawsuit. He enlisted lawyers who lacked antitrust expertise. One was the notorious Roy Cohn. The other eventually spent time in prison for bilking clients.

No surprise, either, that in the end, Trump blamed others. “If there was a single key miscalculation I made with the USFL, it was evaluating the strength of my fellow owners,” he stated in “The Art of the Deal.” In short, they were weak, as the president likes to accuse.

This is worth rehashing, in part, because of recent research in Political Behavior showing that much of the public believes the myth of Trump, about the self-made man and shrewd businessman, “The Apprentice” version. Yet as the Times has established, he inherited more than $431 million from his father, who also bailed out the son when business ventures faltered. Count among the wreckage the USFL.

 

Douglas is the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com editorial page editor. He can be reached at mdouglas@thebeaconjournal.com.