Trump's ugly battles with the NFL go way back

Trump responds after a day of NFL protests
Trump responds after a day of NFL protests

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Story highlights

  • Jeff Pearlman: Trump long tried, unsuccessfully, to own an NFL team
  • Being denied what he wants is key to his hostility to NFL, Pearlman writes

Jeff Pearlman is the author of seven books, including his most recent, "Gunslinger: The Remarkable, Improbable, Iconic Life of Brett Favre." His forthcoming book is about the history of the USFL. You can follow him on Twitter and listen to his podcast, Two Writers Slinging Yang. The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)"Let him buy an NFL team and then he can decide who gets fired ... He can't fire anybody and that's the funny thing about it. He just doesn't have control over us and that's what bothers him the most, I think."

The three men met inside a suite in New York City's Pierre Hotel.
    There was Pete Rozelle, the NFL's longtime commissioner.
    There was Donald Trump, Manhattan-based real estate mogul and owner of the New Jersey Generals of the United States Football League, which was in its second year.
    There was Leslie Schupak, senior managing partner at KCSA Worldwide, the USFL's marketing and public relations firm. I spoke with Schupak on multiple occasions last year as I was reporting my eighth book, a look back at the long-defunct USFL.
    The meeting, held in March 1984, concerned Trump's desire to possess an NFL franchise. Although he owned the Generals and spoke publicly of his love for the USFL, Trump (according to many people who knew him) anxiously wanted to ditch the upstart for the money and fame of the bigger league. Hence, said Schupak, Trump invited Rozelle (a man he knew casually through scattered social encounters) to meet, and had Schupak -- with whom he had bonded -- tag along.
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    Schupak remembered it well. "They arrive, and even before Pete can stop talking on a casual basis, Donald starts his diatribe on how great he (Trump) would be for the NFL, and what it would mean to the NFL to have him as a franchise owner," he said. "Donald is going on in his typical style, telling Pete Rozelle what he believes in, why he would be wonderful. It was typical Donald, in that Rozelle couldn't get a word in."
    According to Schupak, Rozelle, who died in 1996, seemed to be under the impression Trump extended the invite to discuss relations between the two leagues. When he realized what Trump was after, he turned cold and blunt. "Mr. Trump," Rozelle told him, according to Schupak, "as long as I or any of my heirs are involved in the NFL, you will never be a franchise owner in the league."
    The meeting ended shortly thereafter. Not surpisingly, Trump remembered the meeting very differently, in testimony he gave in 1984 during the USFL's antitrust case against the NFL (which we will get back to shortly). Trump told jurors that Rozelle promised him an NFL franchise.
    He did not get one. Donald Trump was never a franchise owner in the NFL.
    When many people first heard the President's comments in Alabama about owners needing to fire those who dare kneel during the national anthem, they presumed the words stemmed from racism.
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    No question, Trump has made it plain over the years where he stands. From calling for a return of the death penalty after the arrest of the Central Park Five (and continuing to believe in their guilt even after DNA exoneration) to spending five years insisting Barack Obama was a Kenyan-born Muslim, to the recent Charlottesville vileness, Trump's history with regard to African-Americans, and indeed anyone who's not white, is dreadful.
    Yet if Trump's anti-NFL stance is race-driven, it is also driven by an impulse that is arguably stronger, more personal and more difficult for him to control in himself: payback.
    See, Donald J. Trump does not do "no" well. He never has. In his mind, he is a winner; a champion; a "really smart" person, and a vanquisher of those who oppose him. As we have seen repeatedly, he will stomp you and pummel you if you get in the way of his goals.
    Real estate empire? Check.
    Reality TV dominance? Check.
    Presidency? Check.
    NFL owner?
    Never.
    Trump first tried to purchase an NFL team in 1981, when he fronted a group that offered $50 million to buy the then-Baltimore Colts from Robert Irsay. When contacted by United Press International at the time, Trump said, "I have not given any offers for the team. Neither was I part of a group that did." This was categorically untrue. Irsay simply rejected the offer.
    Four years later, as he loaded the Generals with one ex-NFL star after another, Trump (according to multiple interviews I've conducted) allegedly schemed to have the USFL fold and the NFL absorb his franchise for New York City. When that dream crashed, Trump convinced his fellow USFL owners to sue the NFL for anti-trust violations. He assured his peers that a victory was in the bag -- and he was right.
    A jury awarded the USFL $1. With that, it was dead after three seasons.
    In 1988, according to the Boston Globe, Trump had an opportunity to purchase the New England Patriots for approximately $80 million. Then Trump learned he would inherit the debts of the previous ownership -- and pulled out. It remains one of the worst business decisions of his life. The organization is now worth more than $3 billion, according to Forbes.
    Finally, in 2014, Trump made a hard push to buy the Buffalo Bills. He found himself bidding against Terry Pegula, a natural gas billionaire who also owned the NHL's Buffalo Sabres. The organization was valued at $870 million, and Trump offered less than a billion. When Pegula came back with $1.4 billion, Trump once again shuffled away empty handed.
    He did not, however, shuffle quietly. On October 10, 2014, the Bills had a press conference to introduce their new owner. Three hundred and seventy miles away in Manhattan, Trump tweeted while he watched Pegula speak. For some, it might ring familiar...
    "The only reason I bid on @buffalobills was to make sure they stayed in Buffalo, where they belong. Mission accomplished."
    And then:
    "Wow. @nfl ratings are down big league. Glad I didn't get the Bills. Rather be lucky than good."
    When Trump began his run of tweets about the NFL this past weekend, many suggested that the league was serving as a handy target for the President to dog-whistle about to his base; that, with his high-risk North Korea chest-pounding, and Jared Kushner's emails, and the Russia investigation looming, he saw the sport and its players as convenient distractions.
    Truth be told, Donald Trump views the league as he does Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton and anyone who dare stand in his path.
    He sees it as an enemy.