A part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series, Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? tells the story of the United States Football League. The USFL was not the first American football league to try to take on the NFL but, arguably, it was one of the most successful. Playing a spring/summer schedule, the USFL lasted for three seasons, from 1983 to 1985. During that time, the USFL introduced many rules that would later be adopted by the NFL, including the two-point conversion and the coach’s challenge. Several future NFL superstars, like Herschel Walker and Steve Young, got their start in the USFL.
So, why is the USFL nearly forgotten today? This documentary largely lays the blame at the feet of none other than Donald Trump. Long before he was President or even a reality TV star, Trump wanted to own a football team. When it became obvious that he wasn’t going to be able to buy an NFL team, Trump purchased the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. Trump not only decided that the USFL needed to switch to a fall schedule and compete directly with the NFL but, under his direction, the USFL also filed an antitrust lawsuit against the NFL. Ironically, the USFL won that lawsuit but were only awarded $3.75 in damages. With the league’s financial resources depleted by the lawsuit, the USFL suspended the 1986 season and never came back.
For all the legitimate criticism that can be directed towards ESPN, the 30 for 30 documentaries have been consistently excellent. While Small Potatoes features plenty of exciting game footage and interviews with former USFL players, it’s not surprising that the most interesting thing about it is listening to Trump revealingly discuss his time as a USFL team owner with the same mix of self-aggrandizement and defensive posturing that he uses to discuss the size of the crowd at his inauguration. Unlike the majority of the players and former owners interviewed in Small Potatoes (including Burt Reynolds, who was one of the owners of the Tampa Bay Bandits), Trump still appears to take it personally that he was never taken seriously as the owner of a football team.
I did not know anything about the USFL before I watched Small Potatoes. My only complaint is that I wish it had been longer. The story of the USFL was too interesting to be confined to just one hour.