Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Unevenly Cooked: Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL?

Watching Mike Tollin’s contribution to ESPN Films’ “30 for 30” series is like being on the receiving end of a college term paper that has 2-inch margins and type large enough for grandma to read it without her glasses. Tollin is a capable storyteller and there are good ideas to be found in his documentary, but the highlights of his effort are let down by the overall sloppiness of the presentation. Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? feels rushed, overly casual and frustratingly scattered. Surprising for something that’s partially autobiographical, it’s a film with too many voices that thus lacks a unifying one. It’s a first draft in need of polishing. It is without question the least impressive of the three “30 for 30” docs released so far, and yet it’s absolutely worth watching because of its terrific subject matter. Small Potatoes lacks the stuff of memorable cinema or journalism, but it’s fascinating all the same because it unearths an important story that the sports world has managed to forget.

The United States Football League enjoyed a three-year run from 1983-1985, during which it evolved from an amateurish sideshow act to an emerging threat to the National Football League, and yet no one talks about it, ever. The USFL drafted three straight Heisman Trophy winners away from the NFL, and yet no one talks about it, ever. The league was the professional starting point for four eventual Hall of Famers – Jim Kelly, Reggie White, Steve Young and Gary Zimmerman – and yet no one talks about it, ever. It had coaches like Lee Corso, Jim Mora and Steve Spurrier, and yet no one talks about it, ever. It flew, temporarily, on wings made of wax that were crafted in part by one of the USFL team owners, Donald Trump, who was so low-profile at the time that ESPN’s Bob Ley called him “low key,” and yet no one talks about it, ever. Small Potatoes remedies these omissions. Its 51 minutes on the USFL are likely to be the first 51 minutes most sports fans have dedicated to the defunct league in 15 years or more. In that respect, Small Potatoes is something to cherish. Otherwise there’s little to praise.

Ironically, Small Potatoes’ undoing might be the filmmaker’s familiarity with the material. You see, during the USFL’s brief run Tollin headed up the production studio that had exclusive rights to USFL footage, repackaging highlights each week for ABC. Consequently his documentary is something of a homecoming, and it often feels that way, though rarely for the better. For example, Tollin narrates portions of the film with the goofy air of someone who is slightly embarrassed by his yearbook photos but is determined to show them to us anyway. For background on the USFL, Tollin borrows generously from a Howard Cosell report that he is too fortunate to remember, as it emits the feeling that the USFL is a minor treasure not worth a fresh coat of paint. And then there’s Tollin’s relationship with Trump, without which Trump probably wouldn’t have agreed to an interview, and yet this too proves to be a curse disguised as a blessing, prompting Tollin to bookend his film with an interview of his high-profile subject that appears to be no longer than 10 minutes and reveals nothing we didn’t already know (Trump is full of himself). Perhaps with the benefit of distance another filmmaker would have brought a virginal enthusiasm to the USFL that Tollin seems to have outgrown. Small Potatoes is personal, yes, but it doesn’t feel intimate. Not when Tollin is doing the talking, at least.

Then again, what’s striking about the film is the reverence that former stars like Kelly and Young prove to maintain for the league. These are men who went on to distinguished NFL careers, and yet they don’t talk about the USFL like it’s a back-alley embarrassment, nor do they laugh it off, as Tollin does, like some screwball experiment. Quite the contrary. The USFL was serious business, even while it positioned itself as an offbeat alternative to the “No Fun League.” Kelly and Young have reason to be proud of their past. The USFL was never held in the same regard as the NFL, sure, but back then the NFL wasn’t held in the same regard as Major League Baseball, which is why the NFL had reason to worry when the USFL started shelling out then-record salaries for the likes of Herschel Walker and Young. Alas, the USFL – perhaps manipulated by a self-serving Trump – became overconfident, expanding too quickly, moving games from the spring to the fall to directly compete with the NFL and then taking on the NFL in a monopoly lawsuit in which both sides came away losers.

It’s intriguing to imagine what might have happened if the USFL had played it safe and given their league time to mature. (Can you picture Mel Kiper breaking down college talent for two professional football drafts?) On the other hand, it was the USFL’s willingness to operate on the edge that gave it a fighting chance in the first place. One of the most entertaining portions of Small Potatoes is a montage of elaborate touchdown celebrations, each of them far more flamboyant than the NFL would allow today and yet somehow less obnoxiously self-congratulatory than the tiresome shimmy-shake NFL players bring out after every tackle or first down. The USFL thrived on its individuality, and somewhere along the way Tollin appears to have swallowed some of the Kool-Aid: Though he’s correct in suggesting that the USFL influenced the NFL with its implementation of instant replay as an officiating tool, Tollin goes too far when he credits the league for prompting the NFL’s adoption of the 2-point conversion, given that the post-touchdown play was used in college football dating back to the late 1950s and in the American Football League prior to its merger with the NFL. Details, details.

That twisting of history isn’t the only time Tollin gets a bit careless with his filmmaking. For example, there’s an outdoor interview with ESPN’s Bill Simmons, the guy who dreamed up the concept for the “30 for 30” series, in which Simmons is so poorly lit that it seems as if the interview was done on a whim using a flip camera that Tollin had in his back pocket when he went to the company picnic. And, of course, there’s the Trump interview, which gets more attention than it warrants. Although Tollin succeeds in tracing the fall of the league back to Trump, the appeal of his film turns out to have more to do with resurrecting the USFL in our memories than sleuthing its demise. “Who killed the USFL?” is a question that’s worth asking, but for now a better question might be this: How did we manage to forget the dead so completely?

Small Potatoes: Who Killed the USFL? premieres tonight on ESPN at 8 pm ET, and will rerun frequently thereafter. The Cooler will be reviewing each film in the “30 for 30” series upon its release.


Kevin J. Olson said...

I'm really interested in watching this. I think a lot of younger NFL fans today don't realize that the NFL was not nearly the juggernaut then that it is now. The USFL, had they stuck to their schedule and maintained being the 'alternative' choice instead of the direct competition, could have put an end to the NFL.

Your marks against the film don't surprise me, though. ESPN stuff always seems to be a bit scatter-brained, but it is undeniably infectious because the material is always worth delving into. I find this to be true with their Sports Century series...they are thin and sometimes too PC(certain aspects of these docs seemed rushed through; parts of the story that seem like they were paid less attention to in order to get an interview with the subject of the doc). ESPN rarely goes for the throat (unless it's someone like Pete Rose) and that's the downside to their ventures in filmmaking.

I will be recording this tonight, though. It looks fascinating, and hopefully it educates a new fan base on just how vulnerable the NFL once was (younger viewers will probably be shocked to find out that MLB was the most popular sport at the time).

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks, Kevin. Small Potatoes doesn't get into the NFL vs MLB (that's just me), but it does make a fairly compelling case that the USFL could have at least made things difficult for the NFL if it had stuck with playing games in the spring.

It's interesting that you mentioned the SportsCentury films, because that's indeed what this felt like. The cool thing about the "30 for 30" concept is that it gives each director total creative freedom, which is why it's a shame that Tollin seems to design more toward the ESPN mold rather than taking advantage of the chance to break out of it.

The previous "30 for 30" pictures have faults, but they at least feel different from the standard ESPN product, and that's been refreshing.

My hunch is that by the time the "30 for 30" series is over there will be a handful of docs that are memorable for more than just their subject matter.

Daniel said...

Fascinating review...but you make it sound like 2-inch margins and large font are a bad thing?

I have to admit a lot of ignorance about the USFL, and the AFL, for that matter. And now we have the UFL, which I find interesting only because I recognize a lot of names on the rosters (including the coaches).

I think the danger in documentaries like this is that they are too short to dig deep and don't know where to begin as a starting point for the viewer. Who is the target audience (obviously males, but what age and interested in which sports?)?

Side question - are you receiving screeners of these prior to their air dates? I'm only curious, and wondering if you know the full list of the 30. Looking at the website, I have to say I didn't realize how many months this project was going to be.

Craig said...

It was an interesting documentary on a league I'd forgotten, probably in part because I wanted to. I barely had a tolerance for pro football in the fall, much less spring; and at the time of its emergence I'd always found the USFL tacky and half-assed, always barking like an amusement park carny. Yet, as you said, the fondness that its former players obviously have for their experience has made me reconsider.

I thought Tollin too simplistically boils down the league's failure to a good guy (the Bandits owner, whose name escapes me) vs. bad guy (the Donald) battle. I also think a little more context would have enhanced the presentation - some examples from Rozelle's No Fun League, the wretchedness of the Super Bowls, and so forth. It's one thing to hear people talk about it, but quite another to see it.

Burt Reynolds was surprisingly eloquent, I thought. Especially at the end, when he comments on "The sum of...."

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Yes on the screeners; no on the full list. As far as what's ahead I only know what's on the site, and it looks like ESPN is going to extend this series out quite a ways.

As for the time issue ...

Craig: Yeah, I think Tollin bites off too much for too little time, which is why it all feels as if it's on fast-forward. That said, I do appreciate the full snapshot of the league, even if it's a speed version. But I could have done without the good guy/bad guy approach. So far the Gretzky piece is most effective, I think, because it focuses its 51 minutes, which isn't much time, on one very small event that had a big impact.

As for Burt Reynolds ... I was too distracted by his, um, barn, or wherever he sat down for the interview, with a jukebox and a stuffed grizzly in the background. It's like some twisted TGIFriday's. And then there's Reynolds' typical habit of talking down to the floor. Just a strange dude.

Craig said...

Yeah, granted, it's been 25 years, but I just don't recall the USFL ever taken as a serious threat to the NFL. If the NFL was the "No Fun League," the USFL was coined the "USeless Football League," one that I doubt would have survived with or without Trump the Clown, with or without staying in the Spring. "Small Potatoes" was a nice reminder that there were great players like Young and Kelly, and good teams like the Philly Stars, but most of the league was a joke.

As for Burt Reynolds ... I was too distracted by his, um, barn, or wherever he sat down for the interview, with a jukebox and a stuffed grizzly in the background.

You smug East Coast types: you see one barn, jukebox and grizzly bear and you start climbin' on your high horses and sippin' your lattes!

That guy who claimed Burt was bigger than Cruise and Hanks, though....a teensy exaggeration.

Jason Bellamy said...

That guy who claimed Burt was bigger than Cruise and Hanks, though....a teensy exaggeration.

Well, in the 1970s that was true.

As for being a "serious threat" to the league: I don't think it was a serious threat in terms of making the NFL fold. But if every year the USFL could have managed to keep luring away just one guy who would have been a top pick in the NFL draft, even if the rest of the product was poor they would have seriously disrupted the NFL's street cred, if you will.

I can't imagine a scenario where the NFL would have folded and the USFL succeeded, but if the USFL started paying college players to skip their senior seasons and join the league, the NFL would have started to look like the big brother getting beat up by its little sister. In that scenario, the little sister doesn't have to win the fight; just landing a few good punches is damage enough.

Daniel said...

In the context of your last comment, I wonder if it's worth considering that the NFL and NBA really started pressuring college players to leave early in the mid-80's and beyond, thus draining the pool for any other start-up leagues in the future. Also interesting to consider that the NBA developed the NBDL as an alterna-league under their own umbrella.

Yet the NFL remains stronger than ever, killing arena football and the XFL and, possibly soon (unless they buy it) the new UFL. Makes me wonder whatever happened to NFL Europe. Weren't you working for them?

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: The NFL is the strongest professional sport going right now, so anything else is going to be a sideshow at this point, unless another league comes along that’s willing and able to do what the USFL did: pay substantially more money than the NFL and/or allow players to join the league earlier than the NFL allows (both were factors in landing Herschel Walker). That’s hard to imagine. The Arena League isn’t really trying to take a shot at the NFL; it’s just trying to capitalize on Americans’ endless love of football, making more money out of a somewhat proven business model. The Arena League is actually good for the NFL, because it gives younger players a place to play and be scouted, and NFL teams love getting to see players develop on someone else’s dime. (There aren’t many players who come from the Arena League and go on to be stars, but it’s not rare for players to land spot at the end of a 53-man roster or even on the practice squad of an NFL team – and there’s good money in that – by performing well in the Arena League. So it’s good for the players, too.)

NFL Europe was a developmental league of the NFL (not a competitor) and part of an effort to broaden the NFL into a worldwide brand. From a developmental aspect, it mostly worked. NFL teams loved to send young players abroad to get seasoning. Alas, those players weren’t fond of going abroad, for the most part, and the effort to make the NFL a worldwide brand pretty much failed. As I recall there were two teams in Germany that had good fan followings, but the other teams didn’t put butts in the seats, which was a big part of the reason the NFL Europe shut down.

My NFL experience (as a writer, not a player, obviously) was with the Green Bay Packers. The brush with NFL Europe came because I kept in touch with some of the Packers players who went abroad so I could transcribe their verbal accounts of their experiences into online journals.

Daniel said...

Fascinating - and, my condolences.

My work experience in the NFL was with the Pats, but my loyalties are for the Vikings, and you, my friend, worked in enemy territory!

Anonymous said...

A lot of people talk about the USFL. Amazing how you hammer that they don't when they do. There are web sites, message boards, groups, alumni, and if you get around in football circles for those who participated you'll always find people who remember it fondly. Do a Google search on it and be enlightened.

Jason Bellamy said...

"...if you get around in football circles for those who participated you'll always find people who remember it fondly."

Anon: Due respect, but this is like me telling you that a lot of people talk about my family at our family reunions.

I have no doubt that there are pockets of USFL fans, but on the whole the league is never discussed anymore. It's been forgotten by the masses, which is the whole point.

Yes, technically you are correct: if someone, anyone talks about the USFL, even if it's to himself in his basement, then I am wildly incorrect that "no one talks about it." But I believe the spirit of my description is accurate.

Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

Though the league in its first season received a fair amount of publicity, having following the league mainly through having watched almost all of games ESPN broadcast in 1985, I definitely agree with Craig's comment in that this league just never had the feel of a serious competitor to the NFL. There were a lot of entertaining stories and games, though, nice to see it get some press.

Troy Olson said...

Just watched this (finally catching up on all my DVR'ed shows) and I think I may have liked it more than you did, as the USFL has always been a fascinating subject to me (in high school I read a book that chronicled the rise and fall of the league titled "The $1 League" and have been interested in it ever since). But yeah, they could devote four hours to the subject and not hit everything.

However, I'll parrot my brother's comment as I felt the same thing while watching -- that this was too similar to an ESPN Sports Century piece. I'd attribute most of this to Tollin's background, as he's not a movie director like Berg and Levinson.

Anyways, I'll agree with many of your points -- it was nice to see guys like Young, Flutie, and Kelly being proud of their time there and it was silly that the Trump interview was framed as it was, since it shouldn't be a shock to anyone that the guy is selfish asshole with no ability to understand his mistakes.

I'm a little skeptical of whether the league could have survived much longer -- it seems that if they became a viable league for a few more years (and kept poaching top talent) that at some point the NFL would have merged with them to stem the tide.

So, when do we get a documentary on the XFL...that's what I really want.

nightfly said...

As a very junior cub reporter for my K-8 school newspaper (we published once while I was there - sorry) I did a story on the USFL stealing Heisman winners from the NFL during the draft. I was 12. The story was incredibly bad.

I think Peter King had come to give a talk at our little school, inspiring our abortive attempt at journalism. (Or should I say "I THINK I think Peter King came to our little school"? 25 years is a long time.)

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