The hallways here in the venerable federal court building in lower Manhattan's Foley Square are marble and cool to the touch even on the muggiest days. Sometimes you can see defendants being led in handcuffs through these halls and, depending on which courtroom you enter, you might see mobster Carmine (The Snake) Persico, or a yuppie in a power tie accused of insider trading on Wall Street, or the full cast of characters in the "Pizza Connection" international drug transport trial. If you opened the door to Room 318, you would see Pete Rozelle and Harry Usher. For here in the courtoom of Peter K. Leisure is where the USFL/NFL antitrust suit is being contested.
The USFL, the pro football league that is forgotten but not gone, claims the NFL has violated antitrust law by unfairly stifling the USFL's ability to compete in a free and open marketplace. The USFL contends it needs access to a national television contract with at least one of the three major networks to survive, and that the NFL, which itself is contractually tied to all three, has influenced the networks not to sign the USFL. This is what professional sports has come to in the 1980s: the inalienable right to TV. The USFL seeks relief from such predatory action and $1.5 billion in damages, which is damn fine work if you can get it.
The NFL says it did no such thing, that neither the intent nor the effect of its being on all three networks has been to preclude the USFL from reaching a network agreement. The NFL insists that the reason no network has signed the USFL is because the USFL has a shoddy product. (Does the nickname "Federals" ring a bell?) And the NFL says, furthermore, that the USFL does not at all want to compete in the marketplace, but wants only to merge with the NFL.
If the USFL loses, it's gone. This is, admittedly, Usher's Last Stand. As the commissioner said outside the courtroom the other afternoon, "The arrows are coming fast." You can put the Orlando Renegades on a field, but you can't force people to come and watch them.
If the NFL loses, it may be gone, too. The jury could award a $1.5 billion judgment. That's $53.5 million per NFL team; $53 million here and $53 million there, pretty soon you're talking about real money. The NFL hasn't even started paying Al Davis yet. If the NFL loses this one, there won't be any money left to pay the phone bill. (Poor Rozelle. These last few years he's been on the stand so often, "People's Court" wants him to be the guest host for Judge Wapner.) Sure, there'll be games on TV this fall, but you'll know there's something different going on when Brent Musburger welcomes you to "The USFL on CBS," and over on NBC you see Bob Costas interviewing Usher, who's wearing a T-shirt that says: "I Own The NFL. 1986 Victory Tour."
Can the USFL win?
It's a jury trial. Any lawyer will tell you that when you get to the jury, anything can happen. There are five women and one man sitting in that box, and none of them knew a fig about football when this trial started. How hard is it going to be to convince them that the big guys might have spilled some water on the little guys?
There are many aspects to the USFL's lawsuit that are troubling, not the least of which is the notion that the league may have moved to the fall solely to bring this suit and engage in tactical legal terrorism. It's unpleasant that the USFL is a made-for-TV league, that it couldn't care less about putting fannies in the seats. And it's unseemly to see the USFL blame all its problems on the NFL -- blathering about how if there's room for refrigerator racing on TV there has to be room for bad pro football and, if there isn't, it's Rozelle's doing -- and take no responsibility for its own bad management, its own bad players and its own bad planning. Why should the NFL be so victimized by its hard work and success that it has to stand accused of conspiracy any time a competitor misses a payroll?
On the other hand, isn't the NFL the sporting corporate octopus that spends so much time lobbying Congress for antitrust exemptions that it considered forming a political action committee? Isn't this the NFL whose owners have effectively circumvented the spirit of free agency to the point where there is none? Let's not make the NFL into the Huxtable kids. The question before the jury is whether the NFL used its influence to deny the USFL access to the networks, not whether it has such capability. It does.
Predictably, both sides are adamantly posturing that settlement by merger is out of the question. The NFL says it reserves the right to pick its own owners. The USFL says it wants good old American competition, not the creeping socialism of a 32- or 34-team league with shared revenue and no competition. But history and logic tell us that one way or another, the NFL will eventually add teams, and that USFL markets such as Oakland, Baltimore, Memphis, New York, Phoenix and maybe even Jacksonville are reasonable places to expand. An NFL franchise is worth about $75 million now. If the USFL were to win this suit or settle out of court and fold into the NFL, USFL owners like Donald (Wrap It Up, I'll Take It) Trump might be getting in for something like $20 million. That's why the NFL is fighting so hard. This lawsuit isn't really about antitrust, but how much money the NFL will get for its expansion franchises.