Thursday September 08, 2016
Movie Review: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (2009)
This is the doc Donald Trump supporters need to watch.
Yes, Trump has done worse things, but killing a pro football league is something his supporters might pay attention to. Look at the people he hurt: beefy, blue collar white dudes. Chuck Pitcock, guard for the Tampa Bay Bandits, talks about crying for joy when he looked around the stadium before his first professional game in the league’s 1984 inaugural season. “I was living my dream,” he says.
Compare that with Trump’s 2009 dismissal of the entire league. “Small potatoes,” he says.
As you watch, that dismissive quote keeps going through your head. And you think: You know, it wasn’t small potatoes to a lot of these guys. To a lot of these guys, it was everything.
And by the end, we know who’s small potatoes.
Hold onto your wallet
I stopped paying attention to pro football in the early 1980s—four Minnesota Vikings Super Bowl losses will do that to you—so I hardly remember the USFL. Apparently they were born out of a combination of the 1982 NFL strike, the rise of cable TV, and the sense that the American appetite for football was insatiable. So why not try a spring league?
They did—12 teams the first year, 18 after that—and immediately started signing college stars. Herschel Walker, Steve Young, Doug Flutie all went to the USFL. The league was young and fun. “All the fun the law will allow” was a Tampa Bay Bandits slogan. They allowed imaginative touchdown celebrations. They invented the two-point conversion. They came up with the instant replay/ref challenge.
And in the first year they did better than expected: 25,000 a game, TV share over 6.0.
And in the second year they got Trump.
He bought the New Jersey Generals and started pushing to move the league into the fall; to compete directly with the NFL. “I’d like to move now,” he said back then. “I’d like to challenge for a couple of years: keep challenging, challenging.”
What did the guys in the league think of the Donald?
- USFL announcer Keith Jackson: “He was a dynamic figure—but he was dynamic in behalf of the Donald Trump interests, not the whole league.”
- Burt Reynolds, general partner of the Bandits: “I hold onto my wallet when I shake hands, but I like him.”
- NJ General announcer Charley Steiner: “I’ve always felt that the USFL in Trump’s mind was all about Donald.”
What did they think about his push to move the league to the fall?
- Jackson: “The silliest thing I ever heard.”
- Reynolds: “To go head to head with them was insane.”
- QB Steve Young: “Everybody sensed that that was not going to go well.”
Trump’s main opponent in moving the league was Bandits’ owner John Bassett, who was more of a stay-the-course guy. He’d been an owner in the World Football League in the 1970s and didn’t want to fail twice. Start small, build slowly, then maybe compete directly with the behemoth that was the NFL in seven or eight years: that was the plan. Others respected him. It was him vs. Donald.
So what happened? Bassett was diagnosed with multiple brain tumors. Then his body weakened. Then Donald took over. “He was like a shark,” someone says. “Just ate up everything around him.”
Here’s Pitcock: “He manipulated [the other owners]. At that point, there was four or five owners that were broke, that didn’t have the power or the money. And they figured if they rode with Donald, they might end up with some. [But] you ain’t going to end up with none. He gonna throw your ass to the street, too.”
In 1986, the drama moved from the gridiron to the courtroom, where the USFL sued the NFL for monopolistic practices. The hope was to win, get a big settlement, use it as a springboard to launch the league in autumn.
Well, they won. But the settlement wasn’t exactly what they wanted. When teams spend millions for players, it’s hard to cry poverty. Plus the Donald was there all the time, and everyone knew how much money he had. So the jury offered a slim settlement: $1 to be exact.
The USFL died. Who killed it?
- “I still feel, and will always feel, that [Trump’s] ambitions—his personal ambitions—were what sunk the league,“ says Burt Reynolds.
- “I think that the USFL three-year activity was similar to his ‘Apprenticeship’ show, you know?” says Chuck Pitcock. "He went in it, and he orchestrated it, then when he was done with them and he didn’t win his lawsuit and get the NFL, he just fired everybody and cleaned house. ‘I’m done. That’s good. Y’all have a nice day.’”
Steve Young says he still feels bad about the demise of the league. “It provided hundreds of jobs for guys that had a tremendous passion for football. And those jobs went away and they didn’t need to.”
And Donald? The guy who killed the league? Who lost all of those jobs? He’s not exactly contrite.
“I actually think I got the league to go as far as it went,” he says in a 2009 interview. “Without me, this league would have folded a lot sooner.”
A great lawsuit
I’ve got to bring up the Charley Steiner thing. It’s so creepy. It’s so Trump.
The documentary was made by Michael Tollin, who, as a 20-something in the 1980s, put together the USFL equivalent of “NFL Films”: the self-promotional weekly highlights. Trump liked him. So he agreed to be interviewed by him in 2009. But he didn’t like him in 2009. Tollin kept asking tough questions, and Trump didn’t like that.
Worse, Tollin starts quoting other people about Trump to Trump. One of them was former Trump employee Charley Steiner. And the quote goes like this: “Donald wanted to become a bigshot, and his entrée into being a big shot was buying himself a football team.”
Trump’s on-camera response? Attack, belittlement, threats. “Charley Steiner was nobody. Charley Steiner couldn’t get a job, and we put him on the USFL, so I hope he said that in a friendly way. Because if he didn’t I’d love to take him on just like I take everybody else on.”
Trump adds: “I hope he remains loyal. And if he doesn’t let me know and I’ll attack him.”
Think about all of this for a second. Donald Trump is known for his business sense. But how dumb—or vain, or pigheaded, or blinkered—do you have to be to sink an entire professional football league. In America.
Of course, he walked away from it unscathed. It was others who suffered. Him, he didn’t even suffer a pang of guilt.
“Honestly,” he says in 2009, “I don’t even think about the USFL anymore. It was a nice experience. It was fun. We had a great lawsuit.”
“Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?” is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch it before the 2016 election.