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As for the USFL, Let It RIP

Let this be the end of the Unusually Stupid Football League.

We have had enough of Gunslingers and Gamblers and Outlaws and Renegades and Bandits. Let us pale riders giddyup for the sunset quickly before we have to deal with the Bakersfield Bushwhackers or the Galveston Graverobbers or the Carson City Cutthroats. Stop this league before it kills.

If we do not get rid of summer football soon, we are going to get stuck with a double helping of fall football, whereupon some entrepreneur is going to start up another summer football league, whereupon six second-string tackles from Central New Hampshire Wesleyan are going to be assured of a future in professional sports.

There will be room for everybody. Got a son bigger than 150 pounds? A pro football team will offer him a contract.

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Oh, in the beginning the United States Football League did not seem unusually stupid. More job opportunities for players. More representation for communities beyond the American mainstream. More fodder for ESPN, which had all but resorted to televising Australian Rules Croquet and Celebrity Mud Wrestling to fill up its air time. The USFL had something to offer besides an alternative to watching “Wheel of Fortune.”

But it didn’t last.

It turned out that summer football was about as popular as winter swimming. Only in Sun Belt cities did the league succeed, unless of course you want to count New Jersey--and who does?--which went out and bought the most expensive players money could buy, then asked the rest of the league to help pay for them. In the meantime, Americans suddenly started seeing more of Doug Flutie on TV than Ed McMahon. What spine-tingling excitement there was wondering if Flutie could complete a pass against those ferocious Jacksonville Bulls.

We have endured three seasons of the Unusually Stupid Football League, and the threat exists that there will be a fourth.

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There is supposed to be an autumn schedule around the next bend, and one of the newer investors in the league, Eddie Einhorn of Chicago, tells us: “Now you tell me: What would you rather see? Herschel Walker and the New Jersey Generals against Jim Kelly of the Houston Gamblers or an NFL game between New Orleans and Kansas City?”

Point well taken. Except as a public service, we now ask readers to play a new parlor game: Name Three Other Houston Gamblers. First prize is two tickets to a 1986 USFL game. Second prize is four tickets.

In Los Angeles, where the USFL team was so terrible that it would have had a difficult time defeating Cal Worthington and his dog Spot, there were often as many as, oh, 50, maybe even 60 people in the Coliseum for a game. The public- address announcer was tempted to say: “Today’s paid attendance: Mr. Fred Jones of Pomona.”

Before the season was over, the ever-popular Express went looking for a place to play where the local folks had never seen a professional sports event. Frankly, they still haven’t.

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Sure, the poor dears tried hard. They played their little cleats off out there. But no one cared, save a few relatives, a few friends and a few orthopedic surgeons. Californians were pretty tired of the L.A. Express by then, and wished that Lyle Alzado would do everyone a favor by eating them.

Were anyone spared, it probably would have to be quarterback Steve Young, who was holding a contract signed by an owner who must have previously worked for the Pentagon, purchasing $659 ash trays.

The continuity of the Unusually Stupid Football League left a lot to be desired. For example, the first two league champions celebrated by moving to new cities.

The Michigan Panthers won the first championship, in a game remembered mostly for a Mace-spraying, club-swinging, German shepherd-growling encounter between the happy fans and the Denver police.

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The Philadelphia Stars won the second championship, in a game remembered mostly for being remembered by nobody outside Pennsylvania.

Michigan moved to Oakland, Philadelphia moved to Baltimore, and now Oakland is playing Baltimore tonight for the third Unusually Stupid Football League championship. Winner gets to leave town.

We will feel sorry for places like Baltimore when they lose their football teams. We already had to feel sorry for Baltimore once before when Robert (The Wagons Roll at Midnight) Irsay moved the beloved Colts to Indianapolis under a starry sky. Now, if the USFL folds, Baltimore could get the football plug pulled again, leaving one of our major sports-loving metropolises with little more than Eddie Murray, Earl Weaver and indoor soccer.

As for Memphis, Birmingham, Jacksonville, Orlando and other towns with no other big-time team to support, other than the one that sweats like pigs in the summertime, we are sympathetic. They deserve better. They deserve a, well, a Gulf States Football League, with a weekly gridiron battle and a cable-TV contract and a talk show for the coach on Sunday morning.

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But the time has come to stop pretending that the USFL teams play on a par with the NFL teams, and that they deserve every bit as much attention as the big boys. The USFL is a discount football league. Always has been, always will be.

No matter what sort of sales job you might hear, the new league is never going to be another American Football League, so rich in talent that Alvin P. Rozelle is going to propose an immediate merger.

The USFL is a league full of 22-year-old novices and 33-year-old busted heaps. By siphoning from the cash flows of such Daddy Gridbucks types as Donald Trump and John Bassett, the USFL has been able to commission a certain amount of talent, mostly in the form of collegiate heroes who have never played a down in the pros. We are supposed to be impressed by this, as if Mike Rozier or Marcus Dupree were worth our undivided attention.

Eric Dickerson was right. When Herschel Walker ran amok and broke a pro football rushing record, all he did was do something special in a minor league. Piling up 180-yard days against the Denver Gold is not the same as doing it against the Denver Broncos.

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As for the fabulous Flutie, there remains a reasonably good chance that he has an excellent career ahead of him, possibly in computer programming or life insurance. Sorry, little fella lovers. Fran Tarkenton, he ain’t.

We have seen a lot of new sports leagues come and go, mostly go, and we are eager or gullible enough to give them the hope of succeeding.

These leagues come along and create more than jobs, though. They create bargaining wars, which create financial hardships, which create higher ticket prices for Joe and Joan Consumer. The teams are not as good because the talent is being divided. We end up paying more for a product that has become less. Pretty soon, worst of all, we cannot even afford the beer that is sponsoring the telecast of the game.

Next time, when men organize to announce the formation of the United States Baseball League, with exciting new franchises for Vancouver and San Jose and Phoenix and, Lord knows, maybe L.A. and New York and Chicago, we should pay more attention to past experiences and fight such men, possibly with neutron bombs.

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We should stick to the leagues we already have, and while we’re at it, pile all our USFL souvenir merchandise into a beautiful bonfire and bring some marshmallows to toast. Let the league flicker away, as if it had never been here at all.

Truth is, it never really was.


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