Tom Brady's relationship with Donald Trump was in the news the other day when Brady referred to Trump as "a good friend of mine." That's fine, but the people who really should be good friends with Trump are the NFL owners, not the players.
After all, Trump is in large measure responsible for much of the untold riches that now flow to those owners. Virtually single-handedly, he eliminated the possibility that a rival league might once have threatened the NFL's hegemony, not to mention its bottom line.
Of course, supposedly, that was not his intention. The rival league was the United States Football League, the only legitimate alternative pro football league since the NFL's 1966 merger with the AFL, and Trump was one of the USFL's team owners.
In other words, he destroyed the USFL from within.
Think what he could destroy if he moved to Washington. No, don't. Really.
The USFL had a great plan. Play games in the spring when the NFL was not playing games. Keep salaries in check but make exceptions for occasional headline stars who would draw attention, including three successive Heisman Trophy winners - Herschel Walker, Mike Rozier and Doug Flutie. Steady and slow.
And then the USFL, after its first two seasons, permitted Trump into its club as the owner of the New Jersey Generals, and the whole enterprise went backwards. Trump made sure the third season would be the last.
"They were on a totally calculated, positive course to force a merger in the same way the AFL did," said Leigh Steinberg, the long-time leading agent who negotiated a USFL contract for Steve Young that could have been worth up to $40 million.
"The explosion in (television) rights fees that occurred over the next 5 to 10 years and the desire for televised sports product gave them an incredible opportunity to grow. They signed exactly the right stars. They had done a very astute marketing job, and they were poised to explode as a very popular league. ... All they needed to do was to stay the course."
Trump managed grudging acceptance from other USFL owners. While most of them opposed his plans for moving to the fall to go head-to-head with the NFL, they eventually agreed because he convinced them that expansion fees and the possibility of a merger would provide a quick return on their original investment.
You may have heard this before: Get rich quick schemes rarely work as intended.
I remember at the time discussing Trump's plans with Tad Taube, owner of the Oakland Invaders, and telling him Trump's plan would be disastrous for the league. Taube, apparently convinced by Trump of the riches that lie ahead, disagreed with me.
"Trump had exactly the wrong analysis," Steinberg said. "They were doing exactly what they needed to do. (Staying on plan), they would have had a multiple on investment. They would have been like Microsoft and Apple for what that money would have yielded them in the future."
Instead of sticking to plan, however, the USFL listened to Trump, expanded, made plans to move to a fall season to go head-to-head with the NFL and filed an antitrust suit against the NFL. The USFL won a pyrrhic victory in court - a $3 (as in 300 pennies) judgment. The league collapsed before it ever played a single game in the fall.
The Trump influence caused smart, rich people to do dumb things. The USFL had television contracts with ABC and a new cable network called ESPN, and it avoided head-to-head conflicts with the NFL. It had cherry-picked its key signings - players like future Hall of Famers Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White and Gary Zimmerman, and future Pro Bowlers like Kent Hull, Anthony Carter and Gary Clark. It had future Hall of Fame coaches like George Allen and Marv Levy and a future Hall of Fame executive, Bill Polian, who went on to build Buffalo's four straight Super Bowl teams.
But USFL owners got seduced by Trump's get-rich-quick scheme.
To this day, Young believes the USFL's original plan would have worked.
"There is no question that the USFL had established a lasting place as a feeder league to the NFL playing in the spring," Young said this week. "It was a very competitive league. Certainly better football than when I joined the Bucs (after the USFL collapse). If we would have stayed in the spring, all would have been well. Moving to the fall was death."
Had the USFL stuck by its original plan, almost certainly there would have been some accommodation from the NFL, whether it was four or six teams absorbed, the entire league or some hybrid plan. Instead, the USFL faded into memory and, perhaps not surprisingly, no one has tried to challenge the NFL since then with another rival league.
Ultimately, about 200 former USFL players played in the NFL.
At the time, NFL teams were averaging $14.2 million a year from their national TV contracts. That figure is now something on the order of $226 million a year. Trump's missteps didn't account for all of that increase, but his interference made sure NFL teams did not have to share the pot with more partners than they wanted.
Ira Miller is an award-winning sportswriter who has covered the National Football League for more than four decades and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee. He is a national columnist for The Sports Xchange.