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The Trump I Knew

logo detail on a USFL football by Wilson
photo by Dave Sizer

To a lot of Republicans, myself included, one of the nicest things you can say about someone is that he is “a stand-up guy.”

By this we mean somebody who takes his medicine along with his bows, doing what he knows is right even when it is not comfortable. Presumably it is a trait we would want to see in our party’s presidential nominee (regardless of the “guy’s” gender). So is the current GOP front-runner, Donald Trump, a stand-up guy?

Not the Donald Trump I knew.

I don’t know Trump the presidential candidate, and most assuredly he does not know (or, rather, remember) me. I never met Trump the reality TV star, or Trump the birther, or Trump the golf resort proprietor (a gig he is widely considered to be quite good at), or Trump the tabloid fixture as he went through a messy divorce in order to get together with his then-future-ex-wife Marla Maples.

I did know - or at least I met - Trump the football team owner.

In the mid-1980s, the United States Football League attempted to compete for American football fans by playing a spring and summer schedule, when the NFL was in its off season. David Dixon, a businessman from New Orleans, conceived of the league and based its initial business model on securing TV rights and controlling spending. This original plan was quite plausible, based on an attempt to extend America’s fast-growing infatuation with pro football through the summer baseball season.

Donald Trump was the original owner of the New Jersey Generals, which he bought for $5 million, but sold out before the first season in 1983 in order to focus on his real estate business. Between the first and second seasons, Trump reacquired full ownership of the Generals, and promptly hired a variety of veteran NFL players. The team then played two solid seasons, making it to the playoffs in both ’84 and ’85.

But Trump had greater ambitions for the Generals. An earlier rival, the American Football League, had been absorbed into the NFL in the early 1970s, and the value of its franchises consequently soared. Trump sought to do the same for his Generals, who as the USFL’s representative in the metro New York market - and holder of some of its highest-profile player contracts - would have been the likeliest team to survive a combination.

But to force a merger, the USFL first had to make itself a real competitor to the NFL, as the AFL had been. It tried to do this by shifting to a fall season, but promptly discovered that America has limited stadium capacity for pro football and that the TV networks of that era had limited interest in broadcasting what was still basically a minor league at the same time the big show was going on. So the USFL launched an antitrust suit against the NFL, accusing it of monopolizing the industry. I covered the case in Manhattan’s federal court.

Trump testified at the trial, and once that was out of the way, he made himself freely and frequently available to us reporters in the courthouse corridors. He was basically the same Trump you see on TV today, albeit with hair of more certain provenance. The USFL case was going to blow away the NFL, he promised. The case would be worth a fortune to him and his partners, but notably to him; if the Generals became an NFL team, the estimated value would have been approximately $70 million. Forbes estimates that the average franchise today is worth $2 billion.

The USFL did, in fact, win. Sort of. The jury found that the NFL indeed held a monopoly. But it rejected the USFL’s additional claims. As a result, the court awarded the upstart league a single dollar in damages, which under the damage rules of antitrust jurisprudence was tripled - to $3.

Where was Trump on that fateful day? Beats me. But he was nowhere to be found at the courthouse. He didn’t return phone calls, either. Eventually, late in the day, he issued a statement through his secretary.

There was no merger with the USFL. The league, and Trump’s Generals, never played another game. The Generals merged with the Houston Gamblers prior to the proposed 1986 season, but the league folded before any season play took place.

Most of the high-profile players in the USFL eventually made it into the NFL or, in some cases, returned there. Eight USFL alumni made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame and three had been Heisman Trophy winners. Some other former USFL players no doubt made a living in Canada and elsewhere. I suppose a lot of them did OK. Not as OK as Trump, maybe, but OK.

I haven’t heard Trump talk about the USFL on the campaign trail. Perhaps nobody cares anymore. I suspect that if he does talk about it, he will portray it as one of his many business successes. After the fact, every business transaction involving Trump is a success. Hearing him talk about his body of work is like watching replays of old Yankee games on the YES Network: Every outing ends in a victory.

Draw what you like from this story, or draw nothing from it at all. But I figured I knew all I needed to know about Trump, the man, after his disappearance from the courthouse that day. He wasn’t a stand-up guy back then. I doubt he is today.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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