No major sport has a longer off-season than professional football. From the end of the Super Bowl in early February until the next kickoff in early September, NFL fans are left to endure seven months of pigskin Siberia every year. (And this year, thanks to the league’s labor problems, the wait could be much, much longer.)
For this we can blame Donald Trump.
For a few years in the mid-1980s, America was actually blessed with two viable professional football leagues: The NFL played in the fall, while the fledgling United States Football League took the spring months. Launched in 1983, the USFL was a cut or two above most second-tier pro leagues. It enjoyed national television contracts with ABC and ESPN (then a newcomer to the sports world itself) and attracted some elite playing and coaching talent. After winning the Heisman Trophy at the University of Georgia in 1982, for instance, running back Herschel Walker spurned the NFL for a contract with the USFL’s New Jersey Generals.
For three seasons, the crowds were good, ratings were decent, and spirits were high. But then the USFL’s owners made a fatal mistake: They listened to The Donald, who had purchased the Generals in the league’s second year of operation. Trump pressured his fellow owners to move their schedule to the fall in order to compete head to head with the NFL. It was an act of suicide. Ultimately, the USFL staked its future on an antitrust suit against the NFL, which ended with a Pyrrhic victory (a judgment for $3) that finished off the upstart league for good.
Filmmaker Mike Tollin, who ran the USFL’s equivalent of NFL Film back in the ’80s, told this story in “Small Potatoes,” a 2009 documentary that was part of ESPN’s “30 for 30” series. One of the highlights of the movie is Tollin’s interview with Trump, who arrives for the taping in a combative mood, provides a series of hostile answers and then storms off the set. When the film debuted in October ‘09, Trump publicly ripped it as “third rate” and attacked Tollin as “a sad guy.” (He also sent a note to Tollin with this handwritten postscript: “You are a loser.”)