|Tuesday, March 4
Updated: March 6, 5:26 PM ET
Former executive holding onto monumental check
By Darren Rovell
The most poignant piece of United States Football League memorabilia has found an unorthodox resting place in a one-story office building in Memphis, Tenn. Surrounded by photos of Showboats legends Reggie White and Sam Clancy, in an office with remnants of paint and furniture in the team's silver and red colors, the artifact lies in the top drawer of a desk, where it has been kept for the last 13 years.
On July 29, 1986, a federal jury in New York concluded that the rival National Football League was in violation of antitrust laws by conspiring to monopolize professional football and in the process damaged the upstart, three-year-old USFL. But in a decision that ultimately lead to the league's death, the jury awarded the league a measly dollar, or $566,999,999 less than the league's counsel had hoped for.
Ehrhart, who was president and part-owner of the Showboats, says he'll never forget the sheer joy he experienced when a colleague relayed the news of the court victory to him. Twenty minutes later, the phone rang again and as he listened to news of the jury's reward, he froze.
"We had no clue what was going on," recalled Ehrhart, who was the recipient of the check as the collector of the $5.5 million in attorney fees from the NFL. "How can you win and then just be awarded a dollar?"
Across the country, other USFL executives experienced the same range of emotions. Bill McSherry, who was the executive director and league counsel in 1984 and 1985, was watching the NBC Evening News with his family when the anchor reported that the USFL had prevailed. Later in the newscast, he heard of the $1 award.
"I was annoyed when I heard that the jury awarded a dollar to a league which had lost more than $100 million," said McSherry, who signed the original complaint. "That's one of the factors that made it one of the most bizarre trials in the history of sports litigation."
Patricia Sibilia was the juror who claims she recommended to the four other women and one man that they award the USFL only $1.
"The NFL clearly was wrong, but I didn't think the USFL deserved any significant amount of money because it seemed like (its) motive for the suit was not an honest one," said Sibilia, who still has all her notes from the trial. "If we forced the NFL to pay a large sum of money, it would probably have forced a merger, which seemed like one of the only reasons why the USFL went through all of this. So we decided that the NFL should lose, but the USFL should only get nominal damages."
Since the NFL spent years appealing the verdict and the USFL spent years appealing the monetary reward, both to no avail, it wasn't until March 15, 1990, that the league finally paid up. A few days later, Ehrhart -- who is now the executive director of the AXA Liberty Bowl -- received a letter that contained the NFL's check, signed by the league controller and an executive assistant to then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Instead of making an attempt at going head-to-head with the NFL for the first time in the fall of 1986, league officials elected to suspend operations just six days after the verdict.
"The psychological impact of being awarded a dollar was very damaging," Ehrhart said. "It was like an anchor around everybody's neck. We wanted sponsors like Chrysler to continue to invest in our league and we had that dollar hanging over our head."
Ehrhart says he has no immediate plans of giving the check to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio and although USFL collector Paul Reeths said the check would draw a minimum bid of $10,000 at auction, Ehrhart says he has no plans on selling it either.
"Over the past couple years, I've had a lot of people tell me I should frame it or put it away, but I like it the way it is," he said. "That's why it's been there for so long."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is the author of a new book, "On the Ball: What You Can Learn About Business From America's Sports Leaders."