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Outlaws, Generals, and Lawyers

Their names have since faded into football sports history, but for a short time nearly 40 years ago, the Oklahoma Outlaws and New Jersey Generals were making sports news.  The short-lived United States Football League (USFL), which kicked off its inaugural season in 1983 and featured 18 teams playing a spring/summer schedule, would only last three seasons.  During that time, though, McAfee & Taft lawyers would be more than mere spectators to the drama playing off the field.  

The following is an excerpt from the book “McAfee & Taft: The First 70 Years,” written by M. Scott Carter, an award-winning author and journalist:

It took a hurricane to get a professional basketball team in Oklahoma.

It took McAfee & Taft to keep the team here.

Not that others didn’t try. In fact, beginning in the early 1980s, Oklahoma did have a professional football team.

For about two years.

That team, the Oklahoma Outlaws, was part of the United States Football League, a spunky start-up football thingy with a unique plan: Instead of going head-to-head with the NFL in the fall, the USFL would dominate the spring.

At least, that was the plan.

By 1983, the USFL was underway. The Outlaws became one of the first six expansion teams. Owned by Bill Tatham, a California real estate and banking mogul, the team had originally planned to homestead in San Diego, California. 

That plan died when a stadium lease fell through.

From there, Tatham set his sights on Oklahoma. A short time later, the state had its first professional sports team.

Oklahoma oilman J. Walter Duncan, a McAfee & Taft client, was already well acquainted with the USFL, having helped found the league. Duncan told The Oklahoman the league was born after he and a few of his friends had a few beers and decided to create a pro football league. Duncan, however, would not own an Oklahoma team. Instead, Duncan’s team was the New Jersey Generals.

“I had one too many and decided to sign Herschel [Walker],” he quipped.

Oklahomans, well known for their love of all things football, quickly embraced the league, and for a moment, things were successful. By mid-season of the Outlaws’ first year, the team’s record stood at 6-2, a tie with defending champion Michigan.

Ten losses later, Oklahoma’s pro football team was history.

Not long after their dismal first season, the Outlaws merged with the Arizona Wranglers to become the Arizona Outlaws.

Back in Oklahoma, J. Walter Duncan had other ideas. Duncan decided to sell his team, the Generals, because he’d grown tired of traveling each weekend to New Jersey. It didn’t take long for Duncan to find a buyer: Donald Trump.

After some negotiation, Trump agreed to buy the team. He paid Duncan an upfront fee and then set up a promissory note with Duncan for the remainder of the purchase price.

However, instead of pushing his team and the league forward, Trump began pushing the USFL to change its schedule. Instead of spring football, Trump wanted the USFL to move its games to fall and take on the NFL face-to-face.

The plan had disaster written all over it.

“The NFL, not to mention the college and even high school games that captured the attention of millions of fans, would surely crush another pro league, many USFL owners and executives worried,” a story published by Time magazine said. 

In addition to the move, Trump and other USFL franchise owners filed an antitrust suit against the NFL. Though Trump denied that a merger with the NFL was his real motive, Time reported that documents discovered during the lawsuit show that Trump had referenced “a merger” and a “merger strategy.”

After only three seasons, the USFL was done. The league collapsed. Trump and the USFL, however, would win their lawsuit against the NFL – on a technicality. But the financial award would be small.

As in very, very small.

Exactly $3.76.

As for Trump, however, his tenure as the owner of the Generals would prove painful —in a legal and financial sense. And once again, Trump would face lawsuits.

This time, Trump would face the attorneys of McAfee & Taft.

With the USFL on the ropes, Trump stopped paying his promissory note to Duncan.

“He just said, ‘the hell with it,’ and didn’t pay,” [attorney Frank] Hill said, “so we filed a lawsuit against him.”

The suit, handled by attorneys Bob Gilliland and John Hermes, would put Trump in a bad legal position. Both sides squared off, ready for court. Then, just before the trial was set to begin, Trump and his attorneys blinked. They decided to settle.

“They settled the case,” Hill said. “The Generals’ previous owners were finally paid a substantial amount. We would not go quietly.”

Trump was sent packing.