They're at war. On one side are the upstarts from the United States Football League, age one year; on the other is the National Football League, which is in its seventh decade and may be the most powerful sports establishment in the history of the world.
The weapons are seven-figure checks. The battleground is roughly the size of the sheets of paper in a standard player's contract. The combatants are middle-aged fat cats, which is one of the refreshing elements of this conflict; for once we are witnessing a war in which the young are not the victims. Indeed, it's conceivable that the young—the players—could be the only really big winners. For example: When Mike Rozier, barely 23, the Nebraska I-back and Heisman Trophy winner who was the top pick in last week's USFL draft, signed on Monday with the USFL's Pittsburgh Maulers, he became an instant millionaire—$3 million for three years, to be precise. Another example: When quarterback Marc Wilson, 26, a $240,000-a-year non-starter for the Los Angeles Raiders for three seasons until last fall, was given a new Raider contract to keep him from defecting to the new league, he was suddenly worth $800,000 a year for the next five years. And there are other examples. Miami Dolphin nose tackle Bob Baumhower, 28, was paid a startling $515,000 salary this year because he did not jump to the USFL, while former Tampa Bay Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams, 28, got a raise from $115,000 to $400,000 because he did jump. Running back Billy Sims, 28, of the Detroit Lions must go to federal court later this month for a decision as to which counts: a $3.5 million, four-year contract he signed with the USFL's Houston Gamblers or his $4.5 million, five-year contract with Detroit.
Now these are what you call winners. But the players aren't at war; they are the loot, booty, plunder, the spoils of it all. And the USFL has already done far better in its raids than expected. Even before it played its first game last winter, the USFL had landed half a dozen potential No. 1 NFL draft picks, including Herschel Walker, the 1982 Heisman winner, Kelvin Bryant, another superb running back that year, and Trumaine Johnson, the best wide receiver. Two players the NFL did draft in the first round, quarterback Jim Kelly and wide receiver Gary Anderson, subsequently signed with the new league. It was the kind of thing the NFL tried to ignore. But then, this season, the USFL began picking off NFL veterans, some of them quite valuable, some has-beens or never-weres. Included in this crowd, besides the aforementioned Williams and on-the-fence Sims, are Joe Cribbs, Brian Sipe, Mike Butler, Gary Barbara, Dan Ross and Cris Collinsworth. This hurt a lot, although dyed-in-the-wool NFL loyalists like the Cowboys' president, Tex Schramm, weren't admitting it. Pooh-poohed Schramm, "We lose that many players every year because of injuries."
The new league will surely get a lot of talent from this crop of college seniors. Prime targets include three top quarterbacks: Steve Young of Brigham Young, Maryland's Boomer Esiason and Duke's Ben Bennett. And that's not all. NFL insiders say that on Feb. 1, when many veterans become free agents, there will be a massive migration into the USFL of NFL old-timers seeking more money (the main motivation) or more playing time or a chance to move to a favorite city.
The crux of it all is simple: money. Some USFL clubs are offering bushels of it. How can the USFL—which plays its "opposite season" in the springtime and so far has attained TV ratings that average less than half of the NFL's; has per-team TV revenues one-fourteenth those of the older league's; draws in-stadium crowds less than half the size of the NFL's; and had to go from 12 to 18 teams to get expansion cash to bolster its original clubs and still had per-team losses ranging up to $4 million in its first season—how can a bizarre sort of seat-of-the-pants league like that even pretend to take on the NFL in wallet-to-wallet combat?
Well, in fact, much of the money fueling the war comes from the personal fortunes of USFL team owners, money that has been generated by real estate deals and oil wells, not successful football franchises. The most visible Daddy War-bucks has been Donald Trump, the New York and Atlantic City real estate mogul, who recently generated a lot of headline heat by putting up $7 million to buy the New Jersey Generals and by then spending millions more to get NFL players like Sipe as well as rights in the distant future to the Giants' super linebacker, Lawrence Taylor. As Don Klosterman, former general manager of the Los Angeles Rams and since Dec. 22 president of the USFL's Los Angeles Express, says with a certain ambivalence: "Donald's driving salaries up all over the league. That can be a problem. But he's also giving the USFL a great shot in the arm when it comes to credibility."
However, not everyone in the USFL likes the big-spending approach, no matter how much credibility it buys. One skeptic is A. Alfred Taubman, the real estate magnate who owns the USFL champion Michigan Panthers. With a personal fortune in excess of $500 million, Taubman could afford to buy a dozen NFL teams by himself. Yet he's an outspoken critic of trying to take on the NFL in a spending war. "Look," says Taubman, "the NFL is a going organization. We're just a babe in the woods. It doesn't take a mathematical genius to tell they can afford a lot more than we can. In our league there are lots of owners with very deep pockets. But nobody can sustain losses year after year. The difference is TV revenue. What our entire league receives from TV is less than any one NFL team gets by itself."
This disagreement over spending philosophies could well be exacerbated—and soon—by such money-flinging wheeler-dealers as Jerry Argovitz, the new ex-agent who is one of the owners of the new Houston Gamblers. "Parity? That's ruined the NFL," scoffs Argovitz. "Me, I'd like to have a team that'll knock your block off, beat you 60-0. And we're going to do that. We're going to be competitive with Trump in New Jersey and Taubman in Detroit and [Ed] DeBartolo in Pittsburgh. A lot of other owners are worried about teams in our league loading up. I'm all for it. The other teams better sign top players, too, or they're in trouble."
However the high-rolling approach may affect the USFL's fortunes, it has already brought a surprisingly direct reaction from the formerly smug NFL. Whereas the attitude in the past was strictly that of the guy who runs the only game in town, the NFL is now exhibiting some very up-front salesmanship. Pete Rozelle himself sent personal telegrams to the top 200 college prospects, saying, "Congratulations on a fine college season. We hope to see you in an NFL training camp next summer." Beyond that, the league has sent potential draftees copies of a new 112-page book called The NFL and You, and a 28-minute film on the joys and rewards of playing in the NFL has been made available to college athletic departments everywhere. A toll-free telephone number at NFL headquarters in New York will be given to the top 200 would-be college draftees so they can call up and fortify themselves against giving into temptation from the USFL.
There was NFL buttonholing and elbow-squeezing at such college-senior showcases as the East-West Shrine game in Palo Alto, Calif. last week. Bo Eason, a safety for the University of California at Davis and a possible first-round draft choice in the NFL, listened to the NFL speaker at a banquet the league threw for the all-stars. "They told us to be patient [i.e., wait for the NFL draft on May 1]," Eason says. "And don't go overboard on the USFL pitch about what they do for us now, and don't be confused by their dollar signs. Then, later, NFL scouts would come up and say, 'Hey, are you going to be patient?' "