There’s a moment from this ESPN 30 for 30 documentary that I can’t stop thinking about. It was one of the first 30 for 30’s, way back in 2009, directed by Mike Tollin, chronicling the rise and fall of the 1980’s springtime professional football league, the USFL (United States Football League). It posed its central question in the title “Who Killed the USFL?” So, who did kill it? Well, the killer, Tollin reckons, was the megalomaniacal owner of the New Jersey Generals franchise – namely, one Donald Trump.
The present day Trump is interviewed on camera throughout, pressed on his innumerable egotistical antics, his desire to force a merger between the USFL and the NFL (National Football League), a merger that never happened and correlated directly to the USFL going bust. But the more questions asked, the more uncomfortable The Donald becomes, because being asked actual questions that demand specific answers as opposed to colorfully vacuous rhetoric is not The Donald’s style. Finally, Mr. Trump removes his mic and walks out of the room, but not without ensuring that he gets the last word because getting the last word is The Donald’s style. To Tollin he sums up the entire USFL experience thusly: “It was small potatoes.”
The documentary, of course, yearns to prove that the USFL wasn’t small potatoes, that it had a quaint je nei sais quoi, that it could have survived had the brand of Trump not swept in and started throwing around bronzed muscle. Indeed, even before Trump arrived the little league that possibly could showed some swagger all on its own. It played games in the spring, yes, but it established franchises in major cities, scored television contracts with both ABC and a then little britches ESPN and, most noteworthy of all, it signed primo players, like three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners right out of college, not to mention high quality talent such as quarterback Jim Kelly, who turned down the Buffalo Bills to sign with the Memphis Showboats (probably because Showboats is a better name than 85% of NFL monikers).
Tollin was sorta the Ed Sabol of the USFL, hired to document it, and at times he comes across too close to the material as well as armed with an agenda. Rather than explore the question of whether or not pro football was really designed to survive for the long haul in the spring and was therefore always destined to crash and burn, Tollin instead dumps the entire league’s undoing on Trump. That’s easy to do, and a whole host of others have done it in the ensuing years, and it’s virtually impossible to dispute ABC broadcaster Keith Jackson noting that Mr. Trump was merely interested in benefiting himself rather than the whole league. What else would you expect? Still, in seeking to determine who killed the USFL, Tollin also seems to try and assassinate the character of Donald Trump.
In spite of this obvious slant, however, it’s inarguable that He, Trump (coinage: Charles Pierce) did not swagger into the New Jersey Generals’ owner’s box absent the ancient idea of Go Big Or Go Home. It’s inarguable because Trump pretty much says it. And whether or not Going Big could potentially also bring about the league’s downfall as much as its coronation mattered little. All other interests were subordinate to the issues of The Donald. So he pushed hard to go right at the National Football League; to play a fall schedule; to even bring a lawsuit against the NFL for monopolization. Trump saw himself as a more charismatic Lamar Hunt, the man who founded the AFL, the upstart pro football league of the 1960’s that did eventually merge with the NFL.
There is a Sports Illustrated article by Robert H. Boyle from 1984 profiling Trump that opens with a bit of information so incredible I can’t even begin to fathom why the documentary failed to include it – namely, Trump wanted to christen the Galaxy Bowl. This Galaxy Bowl, in The Donald’s estimation, would have become the new Super Bowl, pitting NFL champion against USFL champion. In other words, Trump yearned to take the biggest sporting event on Earth and make it bigger. This is awe-inspiring; it’s as Trump-ian as it gets. Of course, you’ve never heard of the Galaxy Bowl because it didn’t happen, which runs counter to the article’s closing line which are Trump’s own words and go like this: “When I want something, I want victory, completeness, results.” In the USFL, he never got victory, completeness or results. The closest he got was the infamous $1 the league won in its anti-trust lawsuit. (“We had a great lawsuit,” Trump says.)
Maybe he really did kill the USFL with his impatient ego, but Trump clearly doesn’t see it that way. He sees a league that, in the end, couldn’t do what it needed to do to be the biggest and the best and the most beautiful, and so it was optimal for all involved that it just went belly-up. And that brings me back to the scene of an aggravated He, Trump getting up and walking out of the interview room.
What happens if Donald J. Trump, presumptive Republican Presidential nominee, really becomes President of the United States? What if he is made to realize that he can’t just throw up the wall overnight, that he can’t just get Congress together in a room and hash out deals, that he bans every Muslim from entering the country but a born and bred American blows something up anyway, that he cannot magically will his way with words? What does he do then? If “Who Killed The USFL?” proves anything, it proves that Trump wants what he wants now, and if he can’t have it, he’ll help run it into the ground and move onto something else.
Can’t you see him increasingly expressing frustration that America is bureaucracy rather than autocracy? Can’t you see him pointing fingers at the Founding Fathers for creating an “awful Head of State position, just the absolute worst”? Can’t you see him in early 2018 resigning the Presidency effective noon tomorrow and making a beeline for the door as a member of the White House Press calls after him “But what about America?”
Can’t you see Trump in the instant before disappearing beneath the exit sign replying “It was small potatoes”?