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‘Football for a Buck’ remembers the USFL

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In many ways, the NFL is one of the last vestiges of American monoculture. In a world where the zeitgeist moves exponentially faster and more unpredictably with each year that passes, there are few entities that are as familiar, as entrenched, as overwhelmingly present as the NFL. Football is America’s sport and the NFL IS football.

But pro football was almost very different.

Jeff Pearlman’s new book “Football for a Buck: The Crazy Rise and Crazier Demise of the USFL” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28) tells the story of the last pro football league to pose a serious challenge to the NFL’s domination of the football landscape. For a brief moment in the mid-1980s, the USFL looked poised to assume a spot alongside the NFL in the American sporting landscape. The pieces were there to succeed, but unfortunately – thanks to some massive individual egos and more than a little hubris – the league flamed out.

It all started with a simple question – why was the NFL the only professional football league in a country mad for the sport? It was a question that had been asked numerous times in the past and had received widely varying answers. When the American Football League was founded in the early 1960s, it took essentially a decade for the NFL to decide to absorb the upstart league. However, when the World Football League tried to launch in the mid-1970s, it lasted less than two seasons before folding. A mixed bag, to say the least.

This was the world into which the United States Football League desired entry. But this league was different. They were going to be a springtime league, an offseason alternative to the entrenched legacy of the NFL. In mid-1982, following a plan formulated years earlier by an entrepreneur named David Dixon, the USFL announced that it would begin play in the spring of 1983.

A dozen teams – nine in NFL markets – hit the field in that inaugural season. The initial goal was to manage costs and take small, incremental steps in the early years. Ideally, slow, gradual growth would be the watchword. Build an audience, both in person and via broadcast deals, and manage financial expectations. Alas, the best laid plans …

It wasn’t long before egos started getting in the way. There was no cap, so different owners could spend differently. Some teams lavished riches on college players, resulting in elite talents like Herschel Walker, Steve Young and Jim Kelly joining the league, while others went bargain hunting. So there was competitive imbalance. Some teams were far more popular than others, drawing five times the crowds – and not necessarily in the places you’d expect. Expansion came far too fast and too haphazardly.

And of course, there were the ill-conceived and ultimately league-immolating plans of the owner of the New Jersey Generals franchise, one Donald J. Trump.

The majority of the USFL’s owners convinced themselves (or allowed themselves to be convinced) that direct competition with the NFL was the right thing to do. And so came the threats to move to the fall … as well as the antitrust lawsuit filed by the new league against the established one, a suit whose ramifications still echo today.

Over the scant three years of its existence, the USFL gave America a pro sports league unlike anything it had ever experienced. Veteran castoffs and never-weres lined up alongside future Hall of Famers, playing a style of football far more freewheeling and dynamic than that of the stodgier elder league. The NFL tried to ignore the upstart, but as more star players chose the new league (and as more fans started watching), it became more difficult not to acknowledge the elephant in the room.

The USFL was also utterly chaotic. Team rosters were packed with bizarre, colorful characters. Players were doing cocaine on team flights and getting drunk at airport bars. Fists flew between players and coaches; hell, even a few owners got involved in a melee or two along the way.

Jeff Pearlman’s affection for the USFL runs deep; his prologue makes that connection abundantly clear. But affection only goes so far. Pearlman is also a top-notch reporter and talented writer. He develops this fascinating story with meticulous research and an incredible eye for detail. Not just any detail, either – the most engaging, most significant detail. This could have easily been a book filled with minutiae; instead, Pearlman weds his journalistic instincts with a crackerjack sense of storytelling to create a rich and vivid portrait of a league that burned twice as bright and half as long.

Is this a niche story? It absolutely is. It’s a deep dive into a deep cut – it’s the definition of niche. However, it also deserves attention outside that niche. Anyone with even a passing interest in football should pick this book up – it’s a look back at a bygone era that shaped the sport as we now experience it. Oh, and it’s also hilarious, if you’re into that kind of thing.

“Football for a Buck” is a frantic, funny history of a football league that was ultimately, to paraphrase Hunter S. Thompson, too weird to live and not too rare to die. It was a glorious, flawed experiment, a football league whose renegade existence helped shape not just the sporting landscape, but the cultural landscape that followed.

Last modified on Wednesday, 19 September 2018 11:45

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