Skyrocketing negative ratings and intense opposition from within his own party haven't dissuaded Donald Trump from pursuing the Republican nomination for president, but the chance to run an NFL franchise would have, according to the real estate mogul himself.
Back in 2014, Trump made a very public bid to buy the Buffalo Bills, floating a $1 billion figure that was met with a healthy degree of skepticism and outright opposition at the time. Ultimately, Trump was passed over in favor of another billionaire, Terry Pegula (who bought the team for $1.4 billion), which inspired a series of insulting tweets in which the then-reality star mocked his rival's leadership of the Buffalo Sabres hockey franchise, claimed that he deserved credit for driving up the team's price and made a now familiar lament that the game of pro football itself had become "so boring now" and "too soft!"
Monday in Buffalo, on the eve of what is expected to be big electoral victory for Trump in his home state of New York, the Republican front-runner appeared to still be bitter over his missed opportunity. Although he now referred to Pegula and his wife as "two great people," he took considerable pains to recount the fact that he allegedly bid $1 billion for the Bills franchise and had "sent out a certified letter to the bank" saying as much.
"I was a little bit hurt," Trump conceded in a rare moment of humility. In February, he told the Associated Press: “If I bought that team, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” as in running for president. This should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his career as a public figure, Trump has a long preoccupation with what has become America's most popular sport, and he has routinely invoked it at times both appropriate and random on the campaign trail.
On Monday night, Trump was introduced by Bills coach Rex Ryan, who alluded to one of the more controversial chapters in Trump's business career -- his unsuccessful foray into sports ownership with the now-defunct New Jersey Generals of the also obsolete United States Football League.
For the uninitiated, the USFL was an ill-fated attempt to create a pro-football league that could compete with the all-powerful NFL on the national stage. Founded in the mid-1980s, the concept was that USFL games would played in the spring while the NFL was on hiatus. Its first season boasted decent ratings, generated significant fan interest and featured high-caliber talent (future NFL Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jim Kelly, for example).
“It was the fun league,” sportscaster Charley Steiner, who called the Generals’ games, told the New York Times in February.
In 1984, prior to the second season, Trump bought the Generals. ''I could have bought an NFL team,'' a then 37-year-old Trump bragged to the Times at the time. ''There were three or four available -- that still are available, including, of course, the Dallas Cowboys. I could have bought an NFL club for $40 million or $50 million, but it's established and you would just see it move laterally. Not enough to create there.''
He also denigrated the entire league's premise, telling reporters: "If God had wanted Spring football, he wouldn't have invented baseball." Trump was apparently interested in setting up a direct competition with the NFL in the fall by its fourth season, and he eventually persuaded most USFL owners to back him. This move spooked both NFL owners and television stations which had huge multi-million dollar deals in place with the more established football league.
"I think it was a big mistake," Dr. Ted Diethrich, one of the USFL's original owners, told ESPN last year. "When that decision was made, the course for this was charted, and it was going to be a wreck."
Trump, as he has shown a propensity to do, took legal action and sued the NFL for being a monopoly. A jury did rule that the NFL's domination of network coverage was unfair but instead of granting the USFL's $1.2 billion request, they awarded the league just $3. And the USFL came to an abrupt halt shortly thereafter. To this day, Trump is widely blamed for its premature demise.
“I have a warm spot in my heart for that period,” Trump told the Associated Press in February. “I had a great time.”
In that same interview, Trump claimed that he approached buying the Bills two years ago only "tentatively," because he was "always was a little concerned if the NFL would remember how I knocked the hell out of them.” Apparently a $3 victory tastes just as sweet to the GOP front-runner as a $1.2 billion one.
And although Trump insisted that running for president is more "exciting" and "cheaper" than NFL ownership, that hasn't stopped him from repeatedly linking himself to the game. Early in his campaign, Trump claimed to have the endorsement of four-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady, who Trump had previously fiercely defended for the quarterback's alleged role in the "deflate-gate" scandal.
Brady has called Trump a friend (who apparently would regularly call him to offer unsolicited "motivation"), but begged off the notion that he was giving the candidate a formal endorsement. In February, Trump would claim that he told Brady not to endorse him.
Last fall, during a heavily promoted #AskTrump Q&A session on Twitter, two of the 12 questions Trump answered were football related -- about whether the Baltimore Ravens' Joe Flacco is an elite quarterback and the playoff chances of the Dallas Cowboys, following the injury of their star QB, Tony Romo.
And on the stump, Trump has linked what he perceives as America's weakness to football as well. "Who the hell wants to watch these crummy games?" he asked a crowd rherotically in Reno, Nevada in January.
"What used to be considered a great tackle, a violent head-on [tackle], a violent — if that was done by Dick Butkus, they’d say he’s the greatest player. If that were done by Lawrence Taylor — it was done by Lawrence Taylor and Dick Butkus and Ray Nitschke, right? Ray Nitschke — you used to see these tackles and it was incredible to watch, right?" he added before repeating a familiar refrain that "football has become soft."
"I'll be criticized for that," he continued. "They’ll say, ‘Oh, isn’t that terrible.’ But football has become soft like our country has become soft. It’s true. It’s true. The outcome of games has been changed by what used to be phenomenal, phenomenal stuff. Now these are rough guys, these are rough guys. These guys — what they’re doing is incredible, but I looked at it and I watched yesterday in particular. So many [penalty] flags, right? So many flags."
The criticism Trump was likely anticipating would likely come from the growing chorus of players (both former and current), their fans and their families who have been alarmed by a rash of concussions and the a slew of athletes posthumously diagnosed with the neurological disorder CTE. Ironically, on the same day that Ryan sang Trump's praises, an appeals court upheld a settlement reached with retired NFL stars in 2013, which could potentially award them up to $5 million each.
Meanwhile, a number of high-profile players have begun to prematurely retire from the game in order to avoided sustaining further injury, and the league has implemented new rules to try to reduce the number of violent collisions, but that hasn't persuaded Trump to stop complaining that "referees are destroying the enjoyment of NFL games" by "slowing down the fun."
"As neurological science has increasingly turned playing and watching football into a moral quandary, the right wing -- with tacit support from the NFL -- has tried to politicize the science and turn it into another battle ground in the PC culture wars," Edge of Sports columnist Dave Zirin told MSNBC on Tuesday.
Trump also frequently gets his football facts wrong -- claiming Ryan won AFC championship games with the New York Jets (he lost two), praised Alabama football at Arkansas rally, appeared to resurrect the ghost of controversial Penn State coach Joe Paterno (or at least his statue) during a recent appearance in Pittsburgh. These gaffes appear to have done nothing to diminish his -- or his supporters' -- penchant for referencing the gridiron.
"While Trump's views are widely divisive in nature, the majority of Americans agree that football is America's game. No matter your race, class, gender or sexual orientation, football is the great equalizer and unifier. And for some, even a religion," Shana Renee Stephenson, editor in chief of All Sports Everything, told MSNBC on Tuesday "Trump understands if he aligns himself with the almighty game of football, his supporters will worship him like they do the sport."
"When a political candidate, such as Trump, possesses shallow knowledge of critical issues, it's convenient to sidestep important issues by firing folks up with a passionate topic that connects with almost everyone -- football," she added. "And fortunately for him, Trump's supporters have proven that comprehension of the economy, foreign policy, education, etc. isn't necessary to become a leading presidential candidate. Instead, they're more impressed with the entertainment value of Trump's campaign than substance"