The U.S. Football League got exactly what it deserved in its lawsuit against the NFL: pennies in damages and millions in ridicule. Probably, the perky new guys on the sporting block were doomed the day a flamboyant hustler strutted into their lives and said: "Hi, I'm Donald Trump." Still, a just verdict produced far more losers than winners.
Think about who actually prevailed. Was it the NFL? Nope. Commissioner Pete Rozelle won. Jack Kent Cooke won. So did the other 27 owners. The rest of the NFL lost. Nearly everybody except the commissioner and maybe five dozen others in the NFL are poorer because the USFL failed.
The USFL almost certainly is history. This means that every Redskin and 1,500 or so other players in the NFL have lost what little bargaining leverage they had with ownership. No longer can a vital player use the possibility of jumping to a rival league to coax a decent raise. Nowhere in any training camp were high-fives spotted when the jury's 31-hour deliberation ended Tuesday.
General managers in the NFL said they were elated, because no competition makes their jobs easier. No longer must the San Diego Chargers scrounge because several of their top draft choices opt for USFL teams. Bobby Beathard seems even more astute, having drafted Kelvin Bryant three years ago in hopes that the USFL would go out of business about the time John Riggins walked into retirement.
The addition of Bryant and more than a dozen other very good USFL players also will cheer coaches such as Joe Gibbs. Temporarily. When Beathard, Gibbs and others in management look beyond their own lives, they will be sad for a hundred or so colleagues suddenly out of work.
A former Redskin, Ted Marchibroda, is one of them. He presumes that the head-coaching job with the best team in the USFL, the Baltimore Stars, would have been his had the award damages not been a matter of about $500 million less than the league demanded.
The Stars were waiting "until the litigation was over" to officially sign him, Marchibroda said from his Falls Church home yesterday, and he was set "to go to war." Almost surely, his troops have been wiped away before he could even lead them in one practice.
Marchibroda had been let go as the offensive coordinator of the Philadelphia Eagles with one year left on his contract. How many others also will have no job options once their work no longer pleases the NFL?
The pity is that the USFL could have worked if its founders had been strong enough to stick with the original game plan and resist speculators such as Trump. As a one-buck league, a diversion in the spring, the USFL could have been steady work for players and executives either on the way up or the way down from the NFL.
Also, competition is necessary so the establishment does not become unbearably powerful and arrogant. New leagues are bold and imaginative; if an idea, such as using television replays, happens to work, the stodgy league steals it.
Early on, the USFL showed a remarkable lack of foresight. Expansion was announced before the first games were played. Some owners hired bright people to promote their teams but dummies to stock them. Nobody seemed able to abide by payroll guidelines that would encourage stability and on-the-field balance.
And yet some of what the USFL did was splendid. It was not a one-runner league, as the NFL insisted when Herschel Walker left Georgia after his junior year and signed with the New Jersey Generals. Lots of bright players and executives gravitated from the USFL to major roles with NFL teams.
Center Bart Oates and punter Sean Landeta were vital additions to a Giants team that beat the defending Super Bowl champions, the 49ers, in the first round of the playoffs last season. The best coach in the USFL, Jim Mora, is now charged with improving the sorriest team in the NFL, the Saints. One of Mora's aides, Vince Tobin, grabbed the job Buddy Ryan vacated with the Bears when Ryan became head coach of the Eagles.
Lack of league-wide firmness encouraged a group led by Trump to attack the NFL, to sue in hopes of a merger, to risk a few million to reap the many millions a franchise in the NFL would be worth. USFL thinkers even botched the victory.
For them, winning wasn't everything. Or even the only thing. It wasn't anything at all. Give 'em a crooked W.
The USFL winners are the few players who already have made their fortunes. One of them, Walker, is making noises about possibly retiring rather than reporting to his NFL team: the Cowboys.
"I've never had the opportunity to be just Herschel," he said. "Real estate is an option."
Artificial real estate, in Texas Stadium, is more likely.
The NFL has signed few of its first-round draft choices. Look for that to suddenly change. With no alternative, those silent USFL rooters shortly will limp into their respective NFL camps. And possibly for a worse deal than was offered a few days ago. We're back to one football again.
So good riddance.
Good riddance to what the USFL became. Good riddance to Trump and his quick-buck buddies. Good riddance to all the lawyers, the only people in all of sport who never lose.
Goodbye to innovation. If fans may like the idea of Bryant, Walker, Jim Kelly and their peers adding quick quality to the NFL, they should brace themselves for more predictability. Goodbye to expansion, unless that were a tradeoff for antitrust legislation from Congress. Goodbye to roster increases, unless that was necessary in collective bargaining to bring about random drug testing.
The USFL was a nice idea greedy men destroyed when they got desperate and tried to bring down the NFL. The winners are loud and loose, as they should be. But glance around. Look at how few actually are celebrating.