Outside the Lines:
USFL 20 Years Later ... Athlete's Gamble


Here's the transcript from Show 154 of weekly Outside The Lines - USFL 20 Years Later ... Athlete's Gamble

SUN., MARCH 9, 2003
Host: Bob Ley, ESPN.
Reported by: Ed Werder, ESPN.
Guests: Carl Peterson, President, Kansas City Chiefs; Benny Silman, former campus bookie.

USFL SPOKESMAN - It's the birth of a new league, new professional football league, the United States Football League.

BOB LEY - With stars, personalities, and momentum, the USFL came to light 20 years ago this week. There was some good football, but big problems.

DOUG FLUTIE, NEW JERSEY GENERALS QUARTERBACK- They didn't know they were getting paid. They'd all get their paycheck and they'd run to the bank and cash it.

LEY - And no respect from the NFL establishment.

CARL PETERSON, PRESIDENT/GENERAL MANAGER PHILADELPHIA / BALTIMORE STARS - They won't last a year. They'll just be a blip on the screen.

DONALD TRUMP, TEAM OWNER - We expect to be around for many years to come.

LEY - Team owner Donald Trump talked of a grandiose future. Looking back now?

TRUMP - I never thought the league could make it. I thought it was a shot in the dark, which it was.

LEY - Also this week -- Florida state quarterback, Adrian McPherson, faces criminal charges for allegedly betting on his team. Today on Outside The Lines, a former campus bookie convicted in a fixing scandal describes the dangers of athletes who wager on their teams. And the USFL, how it lived and why it died.

It seemed like a good idea at the time, and frankly, it was. Spring football, low payrolls, modest goals, and when Herschel Walker took the unprecedented step of leaving college as a junior, the league had a startup jolt. After all, the ABA had parlayed the flair of Julius Erving, wide-open offense, and its tri-colored ball to the point that four teams were eventually absorbed into the NBA.

Just as the World Hockey Association challenged the NHL and eventually saw four WHA teams join the more established league. The USFL was an echo of the American Football League, which on the back of Joe Namath's Super Bowl III upset, brought all of its teams into the NFL. There were Hall of Fame caliber players in the USFL: Steve Young, Jim Kelly, Reggie White, many more. Every player now in the NFL getting paid ought to thank the USFL. Those are the words of Irv Eatman, who played with the Philadelphia Stars and now coaches in Kansas City. The USFL did spend big for some players, but that wasn't the original plan.

You know what they say, though, about the best-laid plans. Ed Werder remembers a league that sprang to life 20 years ago this week.

USFL SPOKESMAN - It's the birth of a new league, the new professional football league, the United States Football League. USFL teams will play football from spring through early summer.

USFL SPOKESMAN - We have no idea how the fans will react to a football game played in the spring and the summer.

USFL SPOKESMAN - USFL teams will be comprised of top-quality, first-line, professional players.

USFL BROADCASTER - Look at that. Walker's got the first down. Still on his feet, nobody can catch him there.

HERSHEL WALKER, NEW JERSEY GENERALS RUNNING BACK - I said there was probably three or four teams in the USFL that could have beat a lot of teams in the NFL.


STEVE SPURRIER, TAMPA BAY BANDITS - The USFL was my first opportunity to be a head coach. Player for player, I would think that was the best offensive group I've ever been around.

ED WERDER, ESPN CORRESPONDENT - There has never been a league like the USFL, a three-year odyssey whose biggest moments included Herschel Walker's fateful coin flip and a $1 courtroom verdict that ruined the ambitious plans of a New York real estate tycoon.

TRUMP - We came very close to a very big payday. And I viewed, when I got into the USFL and later, what I viewed the USFL very much as a great lawsuit.

USFL SIDELINE REPORTER - And so the USFL is becoming a reality. Let's have a cheer.


WERDER - When the USFL began in 1983, Dallas Cowboys president Tex Stram, like most others in the established NFL, dismissed it as comically irrelevant.

PETERSON - When we started with something called the United States Football League, he said, this is totally a sham; we won't want any of their players, any of their coaches, any of their administration. They won't last a year, and they'll just be a blip on the screen.

JIM FASSEL, OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR, NEW ORLEANS BREAKERS - It's always when a new league starts, like the USFL, challenges the NFL and their owners to be competitive. And there's parts of that that's good, and there's parts of it that aren't good.

WERDER - The good thing for the USFL was the credibility and money that came from television contracts with ESPN and ABC.

ROONE ARLEDGE, PRESIDENT OF ABC NEWS AND SPORTS - We think we have a very good chance of succeeding, and there were other networks that were interested, and we're delighted we're going to do it. And I think we'll make it work.

WERDER - But the league remained desperate for quality players. A Memphis Showboats tryout produced mostly wannabes. Steve Spurrier's team was so lacking in identifiable players that the Bandits marketed co-owner Burt Reynolds. Then came instant credibility.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL BROADCASTER - Gives it to Herschel Walker. Walker find a hole on the right side. He's outside, and he may be gone.

WERDER - The controversial signing of Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker was the first jolt to the establishment. At a time when the NFL forbid the drafting of underclassmen, original New Jersey Generals owner Jay Walter Duncan either secretly convinced or, according to Walker's college coach, purposely duped Walker into leaving Georgia.

VINCE DOOLEY, GEORGIA HEAD FOOTBALL COACH, 1964-1989 - I was perturbed at the way it was done, very much so. I didn't think it was a manly way of doing things. I was concerned for Herschel and not totally convinced that he really wanted to do it. And while he flirted with it, and it was his responsibility in flirting with it, nevertheless they moved him into a trap and pretty well closed it on him and didn't give him any options to get out.

WERDER - Walker's version is more simplistic, unable to make the momentous decision, Walker says he flipped a coin.

WERDER - You were the biggest college star in all of football, and you decided to leave on a coin flip.

WALKER - Well, that's the way I decide a lot of decisions sometimes, because, you know, instead of me trying to worry about it, I flip the coin and I just go for it. And I reckon that's the way life is all about.

DOOLEY - Well, that's Herschel.

USFL BROADCASTER - Herschel, 5, 10, and then some. Look out record. Walker, touchdown.

WERDER - Walker was spectacular during the inaugural season, shattering pro football records and drawing season-high crowds at five different USFL stadiums. But two years later when another Heisman Trophy winner, Doug Flutie, joined the Generals, troubling questions were already being asked about the league's staying power.

FLUTIE - Can this man save the USFL? Every time I've actually seen that cover and read it, what are they thinking about? Can this man -- I'm a 22-year-old kid going to play football, that's what I was.

WERDER - As fascinating as Flutie was, the man who commanded even more attention was the General's 37-year-old owner, Donald J. Trump.

TRUMP - There's never been a more successful league in its third year of operation, as everybody understands, and Doug gives tremendous credibility to the league. Ticket sales are going through the roof.

FLUTIE - He made a big production out of things. When he wanted to bring attention to something, he knew how to do it.

REPORTER - Back in the news again?

TRUMP - Yes, I guess so. Can't stay out of it. Just cannot stay out of it.

WERDER - Trump was a gossip page mover and shaker, and he immediately contradicted the league's stated policy of slow growth and fiscal restraint. Trump argues it was merely good business. Others suggest it was simple vanity.

PETERSON - You know, Donald, I think, bought the Generals for the public relations, the publicity that he could generate from that. And, of course, he's always going to do things Donald's way, and his way is to spend the most money.

TRUMP - We just signed the best free safety in the NFL, Gary Barbero, from Kansas City. He's acknowledged to be the best at his position.

We expect to keep going and going strongly. We expect to be around for many years to come.

WERDER - Today, Trump candidly admits he never believed what he was saying back then.

TRUMP - Well, I never thought the league could make it. I thought it was a shot in the dark, which it was. People don't want to watch a football game on Easter.

PETERSON - Donald certainly had ulterior motives for coming into the league. He did some good things for the league, publicity-wise and that. But I know that he certainly wanted to be an owner in the National Football League and felt the United States Football League was the most direct course to get there.

WERDER - On that point, too, Trump's position has changed dramatically over the years.

TRUMP - We are not looking for merger. It would be ridiculous to even consider merger right now on our behalf, frankly.

Thinking back at it, I almost had a shot at getting a chief NFL franchise.

WERDER - And that's what you wanted?

TRUMP - I guess. You know, I'm just thinking back to those days. It was a long time ago, but perhaps that's in the back of my mind. Sometimes I can't even figure out my own mind. But in the back of my mind, I suspect I wanted to get into the NFL at a low price. The problem was we had some owners that couldn't afford to play the game. And if you can't afford to play that game, that game's not going to work out.

FLUTIE - We were hearing just horror stories about the L.A. Express, and I'm thinking of Steve Young. You know, here's Steve, signs this big contract, goes to the L.A. Express. They don't even have money to film their practices and locker room facilities. They didn't know they were getting paid. They all get their paycheck and run to the bank and cash it.

TRUMP - We had a game once where I was told that the other team might not show up. You know, we're going to be on television. And I'm told that the other team might not be there. And I say, well, am I supposed to loan the money to the other team so that he can play my team? This is ridiculous.

WERDER - The USFL's conservative membership was horrified by Trump's solution -- move to the fall and compete directly with the NFL. His survival strategy was to force a merger with a lawsuit against the NFL alleging it was an illegal monopoly.

REPORTER - Any comments, commissioner, after the third day?

WERDER - In a 48-day trial, the USFL won the case, but failed to prove its owners had been financially damaged.

TRUMP - We actually won the lawsuit, and it was sort of interesting, because I was in court and they said, guilty that the NFL is a monopoly, guilty, and I said, unbelievable. We just won. I said, guess what, folks, I'm in the NFL. The problem was, about 18 seconds later, they said, and what damages do you find? And they said, we find $1. And I guess they just felt I didn't need the money.

FASSEL - What happens with people who have a lot of money, and they start a league, and the players that go in there, the tendency is they want to grow too quick. And they say, we can take on the big boys too quick. And you can't. The NFL is an established league.

TRUMP - I had a lot of fun. I learned a lot about football. If people like myself owned every team in the USFL, we'd be in the fall and we'd be playing against the NFL, and we'd probably right now, there would have been a merger a long time ago.

USFL BROADCASTER - Herschel, touchdown.

LEY - The USFL was awarded $1 in jury damages. That was tripled under federal antitrust law to $3, and then interest was added. So this is the check the USFL received from the NFL, $3.76. It sits in a desk drawer in Memphis, Tennessee, where Steve Earhart, who was the president of the Memphis Showboats, now runs the Liberty Bowl, and he's turning down offers from collectors for that infamous check.

We say good morning to Carl Peterson who, 20 years ago, was the club president and general manager of the two-time champions of the USFL, the Philadelphia/Baltimore Stars, coached by Jim Mora. He is now the longtime president of the Kansas City Chiefs, and he joins us from Kansas City. Good morning, Carl.

PETERSON - Good morning, Bob.

LEY - When you hear Donald Trump say flat out, it was a cheap way to get into the NFL, I never believed what I was saying, what's your reaction?

PETERSON - Well, obviously he had other motives for the United States Football League. Myself and a lot of other people were football people that really wanted to see this league flourish and grow, and I think the legacy is that an awful lot of us are back in the National Football League or in the National Football League for the first time.

LEY - What was that clash, though, of philosophies like? Looking, were you and Jim Mora were putting the team together and winning, and looking up to New York City and New Jersey, and Trump was writing check after check. What was that clash of philosophy like?

PETERSON - Well, I think, you know, we proved maybe better than anybody that the game is still a team game, and I don't ever remember the Generals beating us. They never got to a championship game. Proves once again that you don't have to spend the most money to put together a championship franchise.

LEY - We heard Herschel Walker say, present day, he thought four or five teams could compete against the NFL. On their best day, your Philly team against the teams of that era in the NFL, in your heart of hearts, how good were they? How could they have competed?

PETERSON - I think we would have competed well. I think, certainly, at a 500 percent level in the National Football League. There were a lot of players that went on and played a long time in the National Football League on Pro Bowl teams, Super Bowl teams, a lot of coaches, head coaches in the National Football League, past and current. So, we were a good franchise, I think, with a lot of talented people.

LEY - We have seen the XFL come and go. That was less football than it was show biz. But if there was another startup football league, could somebody now here in the 21st century marshal the forces and get it going and challenge the NFL?

PETERSON - Well, I think right now we've expanded to 32 teams in the National Football League. That's a lot of franchises and franchise cities, and some of those were cities in the United States Football League, Baltimore and Jacksonville, for two as an example. But I think that we really already have a spring league. It's called the National Football League Europe League. And before that, it was the World League, including domestic cities in America.

LEY - That check sits in Steve Earhart's desk. None of us are getting any younger. It's a piece of history. What should happen to it?

PETERSON - I think it should go into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. I happen to have the United States Football League championship trophy in my office in Kansas City, and at the appropriate time, they've asked for it, I'm going to give it to Canton, Ohio, I think. The legacy of the United States Football League was very, very good in spite of the ultimate outcome.

LEY - So don't cash that check, you're saying.

PETERSON - No, don't cash that check. I think the attorney's fees were paid by the NFL, but that check is something to remember.

LEY - All right, a little less than four bucks. Carl Peterson, thanks so much for joining us, and happy anniversary.

PETERSON - Thank you, Bob.

LEY - Next up, former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson facing charges he bet on his own team. I'll be speaking with a former campus bookie who took bets from high-profile athletes. Coming up, how simple wagers can grow into a scandal.

LEY - Pete Rose bet on his own sport, probably, according to the late commissioner Bart Giamatti, also on his own team, the Reds. Rose's gambling sparked his torturous 13-year exile that may shortly end. Baseball appears to be moving towards bringing Rose back into its official family.

Meanwhile, former Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson is in a world of legal trouble over accusations that, among other charges, he bet on his Florida State Seminoles. Even when he was the starting quarterback. According to investigators, McPherson bet on the Internet through a third party, and also allegedly, with a local bookmaker, where he ran up an $8,000 debt. But authorities say McPherson always bet on the Seminoles to win. There's no suggestion of any game fixing.

But basketball games were fixed at Arizona State in 1994. Benny Silman was the campus bookie who helped to fix those games, aided by two Arizona State players, Steven Smith and Isaac Burton. Silman spent nearly four years in federal prison. Last year, his life story was portrayed in a made for television movie, and he joins us this morning from New York City. Good morning, Benny.


LEY - When you heard about this case, a quarterback in debt to his bookie, where did your mind go? What did you think?

SILMAN - You know, I was thinking, there's such a fine line between, you know, when a player starts betting and then it starts off like an action, adrenaline rush, and then it becomes a chase, a chase to get your money back. Twenty-dollar bets become $50 bets, become $100 bets, become $1,000 bets. And eventually you find yourself in such a hole and your mind gets altered, and you don't really know what to do.

LEY - And these are competitive guys, athletes, that are going to chase and chase and chase.

SILMAN - Exactly, exactly. And the thing about the student athlete is, they think that they're smarter than the average gambler because they're in the mix, because they know the other players and the other teams. So it's kind of like an ego thing, like they think that they kind of have some kind of inside information.

LEY - If you're making book, taking bets on a campus as you were, and an athlete comes to you, do bells go off in your head?

SILMAN - Oh, most definitely, because an athlete, like I said, is very competitive, and gambling is a very competitive thing. So you know that these athletes are going to be very susceptible to gambling at a heavier pace and possibly doing something that originally they never thought they'd do, like fixing a game.

LEY - The prevalence of campus wagering, we've heard numbers about it, what was your experience back in 1994, and compare it to the present in 2003, with your understanding. How much is going on?

SILMAN - You know, when I was at Arizona State, I mean, gambling was all over the place, finding a bookie was as easy as finding a campus bookstore. And I think it's just escalating and escalating over the years. And I think today it's probably, you know, twice, if not even more times as strong and as influenced. I mean, gambling -- me personally, I think sports in general, to some degree, revolves around gambling. I mean, you got -- from the major leagues, you got professional sports, you got college.

If people are not gambling, they're not going to be as interested in the games.

LEY - Now, you were down in Tallahassee this past week as the story was breaking on a prearranged visit. What were you doing down there?

SILMAN - I was speaking. I did a public, you know, public speaking at the university. And basically I spoke to all the student athletes and the coaches, and just tried to explain to them how something so simple, like starting out by betting a $25 game, could turn into something that spirals and takes over your life.

LEY - Did you have their attention, especially this week? Could you tell if you were getting through?

SILMAN - I feel that some people obviously more than others, some people are sleeping in the back and they don't want to hear anything. But I think the most important thing is to get to them early when they first walk in, when they're a freshman and, you know, get that message across before they spiral into that phase. Because once you're hooked, it's almost impossible to get out.

LEY - There has been a big push in Congress to take college games off the board in Nevada where there is legal wagering. What do you think that would accomplish here?

SILMAN - You know, it's really tough to say. I personally don't think that it could ever really happen, because like I said, so much revolves around what goes on with gambling. I mean, if they're taking it off the board in Nevada, there's still going to be some local bookmaker that has a spread, and it will just be that much harder to detect.

LEY - Of course, we still have the Internet as well.

SILMAN - Exactly.

LEY - But knowing what you know about your experience and that you have a quarterback here in debt, and there's been no allegation that any games are fixed at Florida State, but what does your experience and your gut tell you about if anybody's playing with any of these games right now?

SILMAN - You mean, do I think that people are actually shaving points and doing things like that, is that what you're trying to say?

LEY - Yes, yes.

SILMAN - I think it's very possible. I mean, there's such a fine line between, like, betting on your own games and getting yourself into debt, and then looking for a way to get yourself out of that debt. You know, it's easy to say, hey, well you know what, maybe I could, you know, miss a couple of shots or throw an interception here or there and get myself out of this hole and actually make some money and not really think about what you're really doing, what you're really doing to yourself, to the game, what kind of trouble you could get into. I was in prison for three years.

LEY - Benny Silman, we appreciate you taking the time and wish you the best of luck. Thanks for joining us this morning.

SILMAN - Thank you very much, Bob. Thank you.

LEY - Next up, your thoughts on last week's examination of the one-woman protest, a small college basketball player, Toni Smith.

TONI SMITH, MANHATTANVILLE SENIOR FORWARD - I showed support for everyone who died for this country, but I think that if the flag means to you respecting all of those who died fighting for it, you must also acknowledge all of those who were killed to build it up.

SHERRI COALE, OKLAHOMA WOMEN'S BASKETBALL COACH - I think whatever she wants to do on her own time in street clothes, when she is on campus, wherever she is, that is certainly her constitutional right. But I think the moment that she slips that uniform on, she becomes a representative of more than just herself. And to disrespect the flag is to disrespect her teammates.

LEY - E-mails and reaction to Toni Smith. From Virginia Beach - "I think it is ridiculous for Sherri Coale to suggest she wouldn't protest while she wears the uniform. When she takes off her uniform and is still a student, when she takes off her cap and gown, she is still an American. When is it appropriate for her to protest? I believe that Toni Smith is being a complete hypocrite. Stand up for what you believe in, it is a right symbolized by your flag. Turn you back on that symbol is to denounce the freedom you are exercising."

And from Jacksonville, North Carolina - "I have been a U.S. Marine for the past 18 1/2 years and will be deploying in three days. While I find this personally appalling, the fact that she can continue to do this without treat of harm from our government means I am defending a constitution that works."

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