IS THE USFL LAWSUIT 'SMALL POTATOES' OR DO THE EX-OWNERS HAVE A CASE?
Other questions still remain whether the upstart league will keep its promises with regards to players' health and safety, including testing for PEDs. In the past, many promises were broken by other upstarts.
The USFL, United States Football League, was a professional football league that enjoyed three seasons from 1983 to 1985 playing their games in the spring/summer compared to the already more than well-established NFL that worked in the fall/winter then, like it still does today. Those three years were filled with turmoil and instability as teams struggled to secure leases with stadiums that also housed NFL teams, imbalanced spending caused financial disparity brought on by no hard salary cap, and ownership change, along with relocations, happened regularly. To the fans who craved football during the NCAA and NFL offseason however, things looked relatively clean over those three seasons as the league brought in some serious athletes in guys like Reggie White, Jim Kelly, Steve Young, and three consecutive Heisman Trophy winners in Herschel Walker, Doug Flutie and Mike Rozier.
While the USFL was never the poster child for stability as it almost sunk before it started with ownership issues, it was ultimately greed and hubris that killed the USFL as it attempted to bully the NFL into a merger by starting the 1986 season in the fall as direct competition. That season and merger never happened and the eventually monopoly lawsuit it would file against the NFL was met with an equally disappointing dud as the USFL won its case but was only awarded $1 in damages which after interest and anti-trust escalations, equaled a $3.76 check the NFL cut that to this day hasn’t been cashed. Millions of dollars in debt and the goodwill the league built up coming to a screeching halt resulted in it ceasing operations and folding. This is what makes the current lawsuit that the ex-owners of teams from the USFL of the 80’s have filed against the new start up league using the same league and franchise names for trademark infringement, false advertising and false association so fascinating to watch. A lawsuit snuffed out the former one too soon, could a lawsuit do the same to this new one before games even begin? This lawsuit was filed against the new Fox-owned USFL on behalf of the old owners and spearheaded by Miami Dolphins legendary fullback, and ex-GM of the defunct Jacksonville Bulls franchise of the old-USFL Larry Csonka, as they claim the startup league is “an unabashed counterfeit”. While the league shares zero affiliations with the old-USFL or its franchises, the new league is attempting to draw from the nostalgia that fans of the old league may still have using familiar logos and artwork which would lead many to believe it was a reboot from the same ownership group. Late February Nicholas Matich of McKool Smith, the law firm representing the old ownership group, said in a statement regarding the lawsuit, "FOX is trying to reap where it did not sow and profit from confusion among fans of the real USFL, by claiming the legacy of something it didn't build." The plaintiffs point to plenty of evidence suggesting the new league was attempting to do just that like in its original press release back in June, Fox Sports mentions specifically “bringing back” and “re-launching” the old USFL despite its lack of affiliation. The new-USFL and Fox have neglected past concerns presented by the old-USFL before the official suit was filed simply claiming that the league abandoned its trademarks over 30 years ago and thus relinquished control of their usage. Longtime pro football writer Paul Domowitch, who is currently a contributor to Footballstories, covered those concerns for the Philadelphia Inquirer when talking with the former league’s executive director, Steve Ehrhart, back in June when a concerned Ehrhart said, “I want to dig into it and see who they’re claiming they acquired these rights [to the name] from. Because it didn’t come from any legitimate source.” FOX has seemed confident up until now that the old owners don’t have a case and the coming weeks will really showcase how serious this fight is as the old-USFL will likely request a preliminary injunction to stop the leagues launch in April with the current name and franchise trademarks. This shines a spotlight on the league it would like to avoid as it has effectively drummed up some positive publicity and partnerships up to this point. The USFL Draft went off without a hitch, the unique rule changes like a “3-Point Conversion” was met with great responses, and while owing a lot to the previous history of the old-USFL, the logo and jersey unveilings were positively received as well.
Just this week they announced a partnership with NFL Films to produce a weekly program that will air before game casts that take fans behind the scenes of the league and its teams every week from the draft to the championship on July 3, 2022. With the full 10-game inaugural season of the new-USFL taking place in Birmingham, Alabama, this would give fans of the franchises “local” homes a chance to get excited about the new league and teams to root for as its un-narrated and instead driven by the players and coaches on their journey. Through copies of the USFL’s Player Handbook that were distributed to prospective players and press releases it seemed like they had a lot of things under check like comprehensive drug tests and a medical advisory committee to oversee the player safety elements of the game. Seeing how players and testing were treated through other recent startups like the AAF and the XFL, time will tell if they live up to these promises of securing a clean game free of PEDs and comprehensive medical coverage for players, but the attempt is clearly there. The next few weeks will be interesting as the league attempts to keep moving forward to its April 16 kickoff date and the powers representing the old-USFL attempt to derail this until a proper financial settlement is received or rebranding commences. Players with connections to the Philadelphia Eagles like Quarterbacks Clayton Thorson and Kyle Lauletta, Defensive Tackle Destiney Vaeao, Cornerback De’Vante Bausby, Wide Receiver Manasseh Bailey, and Tight End Cary Angeline who spent time with Philly last season, are a few members of the league trying to get their professional careers back on track. The idea of the league is a great one for developmental purposes and getting the game tape needed to convince teams to take a chance on players that fell through the cracks. Recent success stories like Washington Commanders QB Taylor Heinicke and Ex-Temple Owl, and current Carolina Panther QB PJ Walker making it to NFL after the 2020 version of the XFL folded during the pandemic are poster children for what a spring league can mean for keeping the dream alive. The fan of the game in me hopes these current players' dreams aren’t dashed before they even start but at the end of the day the only people to blame if this reality comes to fruition are current heads of the league and FOX who thought they could just reboot this thing without using the proper channels. Hubris and greed killed the league the first time around, will it be its Achilles heel once more? Oh, the irony. *