I’m a huge fan of Jeff Pearlman’s books so was delighted to get an advance review copy of Football for a Buck which is due to be published this September. It tells the story of the short-lived United States Football League, an upstart rival American Football league set up to try and capture fans attention during the NFL off-season.
An ambitious and slightly crazy plan, the USFL looked to have a real chance of success before a disastrous decision was made to try compete directly with the NFL in autumn time. The league was made up of journeyman pros, college standouts who couldn’t make the NFL, and most excitingly, up and coming superstars who were lured by outrageous paydays – including future NFL Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jim Kelly.
The USFL was before my time, but I really enjoyed the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary ‘Small Potatoes’ on its rise and fall. Pearlman’s book covers the story in much greater detail and has interviews with a very wide range of characters. Pearlman captures what the league meant to a lot of people – fans, players, coaches and owners. He also captures the real influence the USFL had on the NFL, with a number of USFL initiatives, such as the 2 point conversation and replay challenges, being introduced into NFL not long after.
Pearlman has carved a bit of a niche in chronicling the bad guys in sport – with previous books Boys will be Boys and the Bad Guys Won covering the questionably behaved Cowboys and Mets. His books are at times gossipy and entertaining but also meticulously well researched and always brilliant. Similarly in Showtime, Pearlman did a great job of bringing the the 80’s era Lakers to life – through many interesting and sensational anecdotes. Who wants to read about a well behaved team after all? It’s not surprising then that some of the highlights of Football for a Buck are those stories of parties, outrageous behaviour and the wild sense of fun that accompanied many of the teams.
However, the book is at it’s best when it chronicles the behind the scenes story of how teams were formed, how decisions regarding the league were made and the court case that ultimately lead to its demise. A clear villain emerges in the form of Donald J. Trump – a man who sadly needs no introduction. Pearlman is pretty active on twitter including very often strongly condemning Trump’s Presidency. No matter your politics, it would be hard for even the most myopic MAGA enthusiast to read Football for a Buck and think anything favourable of how Trump behaved and influenced the USFL. The book does capture Trump’s remarkable ability to influence and get people on board with him – even, or especially, when his motives are anything but pure – an ability that ultimately took him way further than anyone would have imagined. It also shines a fascinating light on Trump’s feud which seems motivated by resentment towards the NFL as much as by the opportunity to rile up the militaristic instincts of his base.
Overall, this is an entertaining and brilliant read. Pearlman’s nostalgia for the USFL, his meticulous research and his genuine warmth towards many of its remarkable cast of characters shines throughout this excellent book. Pearlman clearly had a great time doing the research and I had a great time reading the book.
Pearlman’s writing podcast ‘Two Writer’s Slinging Yang’ is well worth checking out for fascinating interviews with very interesting writers who discuss their craft in detail. The fact that Pearlman advertises a classic sports jersey website on the podcast purely in exchange for free sports gear for him and his kids is simply wonderful and speaks to Pearlman’s passion for the USFL and great sports stories.