The National Football League was so intent on putting the United States Football League out of business that it set up a committee of team owners and officers to do the job, the lawyer for the USFL claimed yesterday at a news conference in New York.
An NFL spokesman called the charge "totally fictitious, a phony issue."
Roy Cohn, who filed a $1.32 billion antitrust suit against the NFL on behalf of the USFL Wednesday, would not say who is on the committee or what, if anything, it has done to the new league. But the charge was mentioned in the 39-page lawsuit filed in federal court in New York. It alleges that the NFL formed the committee "to recommend means of inhibiting competition by the USFL as a competitive league in major league professional football."
The NFL denies such a committee exists. Spokesman Joe Browne said the NFL does have a long-range planning committee that was formed after the NFL meetings in Hawaii last March.
The committee, Browne said, was formed to "discuss the multifaceted issues that will confront the league in the coming years."
Asked if those issues include the USFL, Browne replied, "No."
But Cohn said the presence of the committee mentioned in the suit strengthens the USFL's case.
The members of the NFL long-range planning committee are Bobby Beathard, general manager of the Washington Redskins; Wellington Mara, owner of the New York Giants; Lamar Hunt, owner of the Kansas City Chiefs; Michael McCaskey, president of the Chicago Bears; Russ Thomas, general manager of the Detroit Lions, and Mike Lynn, general manager of the Minnesota Vikings.
"What you have here in this complaint is a long series of practices not accidental at all," Cohn said. "The NFL formed a committee entitled 'USFL Committee' and the assignment of that committee was to develop various steps the NFL could take to put the USFL out of business. I think without the committee we would have a case. The committee just makes it a little better."
Cohn said he knows the names of committee members and would make them public soon.
Meanwhile, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, named as a defendant, said the suit came as "no surprise" to the NFL.
"This USFL suit, as baseless as it is, comes as no surprise to anyone following sports," he said yesterday in a prepared statement. "Antitrust litigation has been part of the game plan of every second league in modern professional sports history."
Rozelle went on to say the suit "is a transparent effort to interfere with our 65th season and to lay the blame for the USFL's well-known problems and failures at someone else's doorstep . . . It has been clear for some time that treble-damage lawsuits figured as much in USFL plans as did making this league a business and entertainment success."
Donald Trump, owner of the New Jersey Generals, appeared with Cohn at the news conference and blamed the NFL for the difficulties USFL teams are finding in their planned move from the spring to the fall in 1986.
"They've got the networks; they've got the stadiums," Trump said. "They've got everything they have to have. It's been planned in our opinion. It's been contrived in our opinion."