WSJ Review of Jeff Pearlman's 'Football For A Buck'

The new NFL season has commenced with the usual hoopla, though some fans are finding new things to do on Sunday afternoon. Their disaffection isn’t just about kneeling, which is as easy to ignore as other celebrity pose-striking. The game seems flat, perhaps due to efforts to remove risk with new rules and more penalty flags. Watching a game can set the teeth to grinding, especially when advertising time-outs seem longer than the first half of “Gone With the Wind.” Meanwhile, ticket, beer and parking prices make stadium-goers wonder if they could have saved money by opting for a weekend in Paris. So pro football is ripe for revolution. Luckily, Jeff Pearlman’s “Football for a Buck” offers a blueprint for change, based on the United States Football League, which played three semi-glorious seasons starting in 1983. The book will also please readers who sip bad ink about Donald Trump as if it were the finest wine. Mr. Pearlman, whose earlier books include one on the Dallas Cowboys, traces the league’s origins to David Dixon, a New Orleans art dealer who in 1961 dreamed of an NFL expansion team for his hometown. His vision slowly evolved into the USFL, which promised grand innovations: a spring-summer season, regional talent in team lineups, two-point conversion opportunities and a low operating budget. Tryouts were open to the public, Mr. Pearlman tells us, and attracted plumbers, cab drivers and fish-tank cleaners—plus a few fellows with less conventional skill sets. One hopeful was out on a work-release program following an armed-robbery conviction, while another had recently finished a term for manslaughter. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the USFL presented, in the words of one of its former players, “the most violent football ever played by mankind”—featuring a dozen teams (later expanding to 18) with names including the Bandits, Gunslingers and Maulers. There was also athleticism. The Houston Gamblers, looking to hire speedy receivers, auditioned a candidate who had never played a down of football, according to Mr. Pearlman, but who had “recently raced a horse on the television show That’s Incredible . . . and won.” The league launched several pro legends, including Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie, Steve Young and Jim Kelly, all of whom were budget busters. There was a massive gap between “grunt” players—who earned an average of $36,000—and the marquee players like Mr. Walker, who got a $1 million signing bonus and $1.2 million a year, along with that stake in an oil well. On the bright side, the players weren’t expected to be role models. Many did drugs; some smoked cigarettes on the sidelines and even in the huddle. A lineman named Greg Fields responded to being cut by the Los Angeles Express with death threats; management hired Liberace’s bodyguard to keep an eye on him. The executive suite included its own set of rogues. George Allen, the Washington Redskins legend who coached USFL teams in Chicago and Arizona, had an opposing team’s practice sessions illicitly filmed—to great success. “We knew every play they were running,” an assistant coach later marveled. Mr. Pearlman, who drew on roughly 400 interviews for the book, clearly loves the league, but a few of its owners inspire a deep antipathy, including J. William Oldenburg, chairman of a mortgage banking company and owner of the Los Angeles Express, and Donald Trump, real-estate heir and owner of the New Jersey Generals. Mr. Oldenburg was a “volatile, erratic, simple, and clinically insane man,” Mr. Pearlman writes. If he had a virtue, it was his dislike of his New Jersey counterpart. “Donald Trump,” Mr. Oldenburg said, “can get all the press he wants, but when it comes to business, he can’t carry my socks.” As it happened, he also fancied himself a virtuoso at deal making, in one instance buying a property for $800,000 and selling it to a savings and loan under his own control for $55 million. When his financial fraud was discovered, he was history. Mr. Trump, 37 when he entered the picture, is the alpha skunk in this drama, presented by Mr. Pearlman as a lying, preening, no-class schmoe who hoped to merge the USFL with the NFL in order to fulfill his dream of owning an NFL franchise. He was able to talk fellow owners into switching to a fall season, creating nose-to-nose competition between the leagues that shook fan support but, Mr. Trump assumed, would make a merger more likely. He also spearheaded an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL that, if victorious, would provide a cash infusion to keep his dream alive. While Mr. Trump’s forceful personality worked wonders with fellow owners, the jury in the 1986 civil trial didn’t fully succumb to his charms. While it agreed that the NFL had created a monopoly, it awarded Mr. Trump and company $1 in damages. The struggling league (which Mr. Trump dismissed as “small potatoes”) soon collapsed, though Mr. Trump would eventually win a national franchise unforeseen at that time—a victory that Mr. Pearlman considers a nightmare of rare and enduring proportions. As for the idea of an alternate league, it still has appeal. “The USFL wasn’t as good as the NFL,” says Jairo Penaranda, a running back for the Memphis Showboats. “But it was 10,000 times more fun”—and lots cheaper than Paris.