The USFL vs. thw NFL: The Judgement

by John Delach

You may notice TV commercials or advertisements on social media announcing a new spring professional football league known as the United States Football League or USFL. This venture is named after a previous attempt to compete with the NFL during the mid-1980s that died in the court room after a nasty lawsuit.

That USFL played two seasons in the spring. Although the league signed a TV contract with ABC, they lost nearly $200 million during this period. After welcoming Donald Trump into their midst as the owner of the NJ Generals, the other owners caved into his demand that they switch to a fall schedule and compete head on head against the NFL during the 1986 season. Unable to secure a network television contract, the league suspended activities then sued the NFL for monopolizing access to ABC, CBS and NBC. Depending on a successful outcome, the USFL anticipated playing a full season with all eight teams beginning on September 13.

The trial opened on May 12, 1986, in the Federal Courthouse on Foley Square in lower Manhattan, Judge Peter K. Leisure presiding. It was a marathon and a slugfest that lasted ten weeks thanks to the chief plaintiff’s attorney, Harvey Myerson, an associate of Roy Cohn and Trump’s own choice for lead counsel.

NFL Commissioner, Pete Rozelle, was the first witness to testify and his performance on Day 1 left much to be desired. Following that debacle, Rozelle was cajoled, coached and bullied that night by the NFL’s legal team. He returned to the stand. with his act together and made a good showing for the remainder of his time giving testimony.

Myerson called Al Davis, the recalcitrant owner of the NFL’s Oakland Raiders to testify in favor of the USFL Davis, who had an eternal blood-feud with Rozelle didn’t have a problem with sticking it to his fellow owners. Myerson also called an over-the-hill Howard Cosell who was somewhat inebriated and gave a rambling address against his old boss at ABC’s, Roone Arledge.   

Frank Rothman, the NFL’s lead attorney methodically examined Chet Simmons, the former USFL’s Commissioner who Trump had removed and, Harry Usher, the current Commissioner. Usher was inept and testified that the only reason that the USFL switched from a spring league to a fall league was to position itself for a merger with the NFL.

Rothman’s special victim and his best witness for the NFL was their chief protagonist, Donald Trump! Richard Hoffer of the Los Angeles Times wrote: “Rothman’s cross-examination was a breathtaking ode to knowing your subject and taking him apart, piece by piece.” 

By the time the testimony wrapped up and closing arguments were made, it became obvious that Rothman had successfully demonstrated that the NFL was innocent of all charges. Myerson’s attack strategy was to paint the NFL as Big Business and his USFL as the little guy shut out from a path to success.

The jury debated the case for five days deadlocked three to three. One faction favored the USFL and wanted a judgement of between $300 million and $500 million. With triple damages the judgement would have ranged from $900 million to $1.5 billion.

The other faction wanted to find in favor of the NFL without any damages. After seemingly endless and fruitless debate, it seemed that they finally reached a compromise based on the judge’s instructions to the jury that included a statement that they could award as little as $1.00 in damages if they could not distinguish the amount of the USFL’s losses that were due to its own poor management as opposed to the amount caused by the NFL’s monopolistic practices.

The jury reached a curious verdict in the pressure cooker of a packed jury room. They deemed that the NFL violated Section 2 if the Sherman Anti-trust Act by monopolizing the three television networks but found the NFL not guilty of the other eight charges.

The jury foreman handed Judge Leisure their verdict. After he absorbed it, he asked her how did the jury find on Count One? She replied: “Guilty.”

The court room erupted in joy and excitement for all supporting the USFL. After, order was restored, he asked the foreman how the jury found on the other eight counts and the foreman repeated, “Not Guilty” eight times.

Then Leisure asked the foreman the amount of the damages the jury had agreed upon and she replied, “One dollar.”

A quieter, but just as intensive reaction erupted from those supporting the NFL. The USFL legal team was devastated, the USFL as a league was done and Trump was an embarrassment to the public, the press and his fellow USFL owners.

Myerson was livid. He moved for a mistrial, a motion that Judge Leisure rejected. (The USFL’s subsequent appeal to higher courts were also rejected.) 

Ayoung John Mara, eldest son of the New York Football Giants President, Wellington Mara, and future president of the team, was in the courtroom  monitoring the proceedings. On hearing the words one dollar, he pulled a dollar bill from his wallet and handed it to The Donald. Trump’s sunken expression was worth the price.