ESPN 30 for 30: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? (2009)

Directed by Michael Tollin

To a youngster like me the USFL, or United States Football League, was a gimmick league, sort of like the XFL was, a completely manufactured entertainment business which had no promise to ever sustain the league or compete in any market. They had second rate players and coaches and lasted only a few years because it was destined to fail. I cannot really say how I had come to that conclusion, having never really been informed on the league, but that was how I felt before sitting down to this installment of ESPN’s 30 for 30. I probably thought the way I did because it did fail to compete with the NFL and it did fold after only a few years, but apparently not for the reasons I had in my mind.

In 1983, a small group of businessmen formed the United States Football League, a professional football league which would hold its season in the spring/summer to give fans of the sport something to cheer about outside the fall/winter schedule of the National Football League. To help their start-up, Heisman Trophy Winner Herschel Walker was signed out of college to the USFL instead of the NFL. They had their star player and even struck a television deal with ABC. The first few years were deemed successful, with the attendance and ratings goals being met. However, some of the owners were still somewhat broke. Enter Donald Trump as the owner of the New Jersey team. Trump convinced the poorer owners to file a monopoly suit against the NFL and attempt to move the USFL to the fall. They won their lawsuit and were set to open a fall season in 1986, but then the league folded.

This was an entirely enlightening documentary film and a perfect example of the joy of sports, film, and this series in general. But before I pile the praises upon the filmmaker Michael Tollin, let me just say that the story being told was most certainly romanticized. I was not around to experience the USFL, so I don’t have anything to really go on but my gut, however I found it a bit biased that a former USFL employee, who admittedly had a wonderful time while working with the league, should be the one to construct the documentary and single out Trump as the one who brought the fun to an end. He interviews those who look back fondly and remember all the good, which really works in painting the picture of the positives of the organization, but not so much the negatives.

And I have to imagine there were plenty of negatives, otherwise some of the owners would not have followed Trump down the wrong road, and the league would not have had to fold the way it did. I was definitely impressed with how the league was presented, however. All the players and coaches they talked to seemed to think very highly of their experiences and their times there. I was surprised to find out who these people were, some big names to be sure. Steve Young, Jim Kelley and Herschel Walker played for these teams. Lee Corso, Jim Mora and Steve Spurrier coached these teams. Recognizable names and faces which, in my mind, definitely now give the league credence in my estimation.

It was a fun time when the NFL stood for the “No Fun League”, which some would argue it still stands for. I now know, at least partially, what the USFL was all about and to bring the XFL up in the same conversation with the USFL is unwarranted, other than bringing up the XFL is fun to do anytime football is involved. Tollin certainly set out to vilify Trump from the get go, before he even sat down to talk to the man, but I also think the film is aptly named. The USFL and Tollin and his crews were “Small Potatoes” to the billionaire. He manipulated the league for greed and that is what brought them down. After seeing this, I think the USFL could have made it, and it was nicely presented, even if it was biased and romanticized.

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