Photo: Harry How (Getty)

Pro Football Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson has been making the rounds this week, ever since he spearheaded the drafting of a letter that demands better benefits for retired NFL players—at first, specifically Hall of Famers. The rollout of that letter and the fallout that has ensued has been messy, to say the least.

The letter, which seeks improved health and pension benefits, was signed by 22 Hall of Famers, plus the widow of a deceased HOFer. The letter threatened that Hall of Famers would boycott future induction ceremonies unless the signatories’ demands were met. In an appearance on ESPN’s Golic and Wingo Show, Dickerson said the idea was hatched as he played golf with fellow Hall of Famers Lawrence Taylor, Rickey Jackson, and Bruce Smith around the time of this summer’s induction ceremonies. But within hours of the letter’s release, two of its signatories, Jerry Rice and Kurt Warner, publicly distanced themselves from any boycott efforts. The letter also drew a rebuke for limiting its scope to advocating for Hall of Famers. Dickerson subsequently told ESPN’s Outside The Lines that the real goal is to get better benefits for all ex-players, but that the narrow focus on Hall of Famers was simply a starting point.

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Other knotty issues have since come up. Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith discovered a UPI wire story that identified Dickerson as a picket line-crosser during the final week of the 1987 NFL players strike, when the owners broke the union’s solidarity by replacing the strikers with scabs for three games. A Los Angeles Times story from Friday, Oct. 16, 1987, said Dickerson and Rams quarterback Jim Everett were indeed on the list of players who would have been eligible to play that weekend because they reported for work before the strike officially ended two days earlier. It’s true that by that point, the strike was a lost cause. But the owners, in one last fuck-you to the union, declared that any players who had failed to report by 1 p.m. that Wednesday would be ineligible. The third week of scab games was thus essentially a one-week lockout. In the end, neither Dickerson nor Everett actually suited up with the scabs. That same Times story quoted Dickerson as saying, “I can’t take a chance going in behind this [non-union] offensive line.”

Dickerson has since taken some heat for other reasons. Fellow Hall of Famer Shannon Sharpe, though supportive of the cause, told Dickerson he thought the HOF group “jumped the gun” with the letter. And Dickerson caught additional fire for supposedly demanding that a “proper” pension for Hall of Famers would amount to $300,000 a year.

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On Wednesday night, I spoke to Dickerson by phone to ask about his advocacy efforts and some of the fuss he’s kicked up. I also asked him a few follow-up questions Friday morning via Twitter direct message. What follows is a transcript of those conversations. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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I wanted to call you because I saw the same stuff Michael David Smith did. I saw the UPI story and the L.A. Times story that said you were on the list as eligible for the third scab game, because you reported back to the Rams before the strike was officially over.

I never crossed the picket line, that’s what happened. That story is inaccurate. They keep planting these stories trying to find something on me. That’s just a lie. He never called me or asked me for a quote. No, I never crossed the picket line, not one time. When my team went in, that’s when I went in.

In fairness to Michael, this wasn’t planted. When I saw your letter and listened to some of the interviews you’ve done this week, I started researching this myself. I did a long story about the ‘87 strike a few months back, so I’m interested in this, and I was curious as to how you square your position now with what was published about you then.

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Trust me. I did not cross. I lived in Calabasas way out here; [we practiced] in Anaheim, that’s [60] miles away. I remember when they called me, asked me, “The scabs are coming in, we’re going to throw stuff at them.” And I remember saying, “Man, I’m not coming in to throw nothing at nobody. But when ya’ll go in, then I’ll go in.” And that was it. You know, it really pisses me off when they print this stuff. It’s untrue. This is the kind of stuff that they did to me back in the ‘80s. This kind of bullshit. It wasn’t fair. They write these articles, they’d interview me, and then they’d say, “This is what he really means.” It’s not true, and the guy still has it up there. To me, it’s just another ploy by the NFL to—I don’t know—bring down my credibility.

One thing about me—and I’ll say it again—loyal. I’m loyal to the cause, really, I am. I’m always a player first. Because I know the struggles the players have. Just like you’re a writer—you know what it’s like to be a writer; I don’t know what it’s like to be a writer, but I know what it’s like to sit up and can’t sleep at night, I know what it’s like to be in the ice bucket, and all that kind of stuff. I know what it’s like to play in cold football games and get the hell beat out of you, and have great games. I know what it’s like when they cheer you, I know what it’s like when they boo you and throw stuff at you. I’ve been through all of it. You read this kind of stuff from some guy, some jackoff, it’s just really frustrating.

I’ll say it again. [Pro Football Hall of Fame president] David Baker, [NFL commissioner] Roger Goodell, [NFLPA executive director] DeMaurice Smith, I’ll debate them anywhere over these issues, of player health, player pensions. It’s amazing to me. Roger Goodell makes $40 million. Hell, okay. All right, he’s making $40 million. That means the league is doing fantastic. How about taking care of the other guys. His family has health care. When was the last time Roger Goodell got hit? When was the last time DeMaurice Smith got hit? I can tell you: never. When was the last time David Baker got hit playing football? Never. But all their families have health care. It really is frustrating to me and a lot of other guys.

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Have you talked to any current players about your goals here? De Smith is the negotiator and the public face of the union, but he really represents the collective interests of the players themselves.

[Represents them] badly. Very, very, very, very, very badly. He’s nothing but a mini Gene Upshaw—no offense to Gene Upshaw; he’s passed on. [De] is even worse.

How so? I know Upshaw [the NFLPA chief when Dickerson played] had the reputation of being too tight with management. But, in your opinion, how is De worse?

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He got crushed in that CBA. We got nothing, really. All they got was [the chance] to go back and play football. That’s it. That’s what makes him worse.

Weren’t there—

—It comes to a point where, look, we have to take a stand. We have to take a stand as players. We also want to have our Hall of Fame players, our older players involved in this CBA to also make decisions because they’ve been there. These young guys, one day you’re going to be old. See, that was one thing, with Gene Upshaw, he didn’t want that, either. It’s just the same model. “I represent the players. I don’t represent retired players. You do what you do, but you can’t hire me or fire me.” It’s just the same model.

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Back in ‘87, you say you didn’t cross, but the Rams had maybe a dozen guys who did.

I wasn’t one of them.

Okay. You maintain you’re not one of them; I get that. But we all know there were maybe a dozen or so who did.

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I do know some guys who crossed.

Right. I guess the question is—and this goes back long before ’87, and it may be an issue again in another two to three years if another strike or lockout is in the cards—but why is it so difficult for guys to stick together, when there are guys like you, guys like Richard Sherman, Eric Winston, guys who seem to be committed to this cause. I mean, when the ‘87 strike happened during your day and the owners responded by putting fucking replacement players on the field, the union folded. Why? 

That’s a great question. It’s almost like they’re robotic, like they’re afraid of all this. They’re just afraid—even now. Even right now, guys still have that attitude, like, “That’s the league, that’s the union, man, I’m not sure.” Man, what are you afraid of? What can they do to you? Our union is so weak. Baseball, they have a stipend for their players if they hold out. But football, some of them guys live check to check. Especially back in our day.

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I think they have a strike fund now, so they seem to be better prepared this time around. But, still, the issue is going to be holding guys together. I mean, the Steelers’ linemen went after Le’Veon Bell for refusing to sign his franchise tender.

I know.

What did you think of that?

I think it’s wrong. Here you are, talking about your player, that you block for, you play together—you leave that alone. First of all, you’re always about the players. You just say, “Hey, when he comes in, he’s welcome. That’s it.” You don’t try to play that political position. And a lot of guys do. They play the political position by playing both sides, like they’re going to help the team and the team’s going to look out for them. The team’s not going to look out for you. It just don’t work like that. That’s what happens. Guys just can’t stick together. When I started this campaign, I said, “Look, guys, we have a problem sticking together. Don’t put me out here by myself.” If you’re gonna do that—I don’t need this headache; I really don’t. If we stick together, we can win. If we don’t, I think we’re lost. Like, yesterday, when it got out that Jerry Rice and Kurt Warner didn’t want to be on the letter.

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Yep. I was going to ask you about that.

Okay. No game plan is perfect. That was my bad, that really was. I had looked at six different drafts [of the letter]. I missed that at the bottom and meant to take those guys off. I talked to them, they said they supported it, but they were not on the board. That’s my fault. I take full responsibility for that. But all of a sudden, that becomes the big issue. Hey, that’s not even the issue here. It’s two guys. They support, let’s take them off, and let’s move on. Let’s talk about the real issue. You don’t understand. It’s so frustrating.

Does anyone else have your back at this point, though?

Oh, yeah. A lot of guys have my back. But it’s just frustrating when you have guys that you talk to—and they were gung ho. I won’t say names, but they were gung ho when we started this at the golf course. All of a sudden, today, they sound like a little pussycat. “Well, you know, now I’m not sure what I want to do. I support the guys now.” It wasn’t anyone on the board. “But I just want to let you know I’m kind of apprehensive because of the letter.” I said, “Forget our letter. The big picture is trying to get health care and a proper pension. That’s the real mission.” It’s frustrating. I always go back to what my mom used to tell me. She said, “Boy, you got one problem: that loyalty of yours. Everybody’s not as loyal as you.” And I see that.

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A lot of guys are very loyal, don’t get me wrong. I talked to Jim Brown today. It was so inspirational. He said, “Eric, know this: I got your back 100 percent. I’m with you.” He said, “Don’t give up the fight.” And that means the world to me. It really does. All of a sudden when you start getting these emails or tweets—and that stuff, it rolls off my back, but you don’t like seeing it. But a lot of it isn’t true, just like this article this guy wrote. It’s untrue. And if we didn’t catch it, it would have been out there and people would have been going, “Yeah, you crossed the picket line!”

I mean, [PFT’s Michael David Smith] was citing an article from 1987 that was published before the strike was officially over that said that.

But he knows it’s not true. He found out it’s not true.

He told you that?

I sent the information to him. It’s not true. But he still keeps it up. I never crossed.

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The story said you did.

Remember this, though: Everything ya’ll write is not true. That’s like saying, everything that’s printed is gospel.

What about the lawsuit you filed against the NFLPA in 1989?

They had used my name, image, and likeness, and I didn’t know about it. I called them and they said I signed up. I said I didn’t sign. They said they would call me back. Never did. Finally got a lawyer ... they sent me the copy and it wasn’t even close to my signature. They forged it ... just horrible. It was worth it because it was a big step for all players owning their name, image, and likeness.

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[Eds. note: The NFLPA now has a group licensing agreement with all players, but there were murky issues in the late 1980s–early ‘90s in part because the NFLPA decertified for a few years.]

In researching this, I also came across a 1989 Newsday story that said you weren’t a member of the NFLPA, along with a 1990 Newsday story that described you as having “been at odds with the NFL Players Association for a number of years.” Did you leave the NFLPA around that time?

I don’t believe so but honestly I don’t remember. This is all so funny because [it was] 30 years ago. The NFL is something man lol.

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All right. Where do you go from here with this effort to get better health and pension benefits for retired players?

We’re going to keep fighting. We’re going to keep this going. Trust me, this won’t stop. We’re going to keep the barrage on.

Yeah, but, I guess, how? The union now has a zillion issues on the table involving current players—their share of the revenues, guaranteed contracts, raising the minimum salary, disciplinary policies, the drug policy, etc. That’s not to minimize the issues you’re raising. But how do you expect to get your concerns on the table, too?

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I just feel like we have to keep the pressure on. Keep talking about this, keep this in the media. We’re just not going to stop. The thing is, a lot of people think that pro football players are wealthy. They also think that every guy has health care. When I tell people about my own experience, they say, “Come on, man. You lying.” People really believe that. If we can educate them on things that the National Football League really does. Just like contracts, even now. Contracts are not guaranteed. You can explain it to them till the cows come home. A guy got a four-year deal for $30 million. He’s going to get his $10 million up front, and he’s going to get a salary of $4 million. After two years, they cut him, and that’s it. People are always, like, “That’s not it.” And I say, “Yes. That’s it.” And they’ll say, “Well, but he has a contract.” And I say, “No. He’s done.”

And that’s just the guys who can get a four-year contract for $30 million. We’re not even talking about the vast majority who might sign for far less than that with nothing guaranteed, or the grunts who could get cut tomorrow with no income beyond that, or the thousand or so dudes who are churned out by the end of training camp after having collected nothing more than a per diem.

You’ve got that so right. You’re a writer, so you’re one of the few that get it. But if you tell the average NFL fan this, they don’t get that. You have to break it down for him, almost like a child, like, “Look, one plus one is two. That’s red, and that’s green.” You tell them all that and they’re still, like, “No, but you have a contract.” I say, “No, it’s not. It’s a one-year agreement. You don’t understand.”

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Guaranteed money could be something that’s on the table in the next CBA.

That should have been done years ago, just like total free agency should have been done.

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You guys had to decertify the union and go to court to get that.

Yeah. Exactly.

I want to come back to the ‘87 strike. Lawrence Taylor is one of the guys who signed on to your letter, but he is a guy who played in the Giants’ third scab game.

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I didn’t play in no scab games.

I know you didn’t.

When everyone else went in, that’s when I went in.

Okay. What kind of pension do you have now? You’re a Hall of Famer and an all-time great. If you don’t mind my asking, what do you get for that?

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If I took my pension it would be like $4,200.

A month?

A month, yeah. Or $4,000 a month. Something like that.

But you don’t take it?

I did disability. What they do is they make you pick. You can’t take both. That’s just how it’s set up. They make you take one or the other. Can’t take both. Now, in any other sport or any other job, if you take disability and you take your pension, you get both. But the NFL, it’s the only one that’s set up like that. You have to take one or the other.

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And for guys who played before 1993, it’s a different pension standard than for those who played after?

Yes. The guys who are pre-’93, they get no health care and almost no pension.

[Update: An NFLPA spokesman disputed this, saying its legacy fund has $620 million set aside for pre-1993 players. “Borne out of [the] lockout,” the spokesman added, this fund was “negotiated by active players in 2011.”]

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I know the guys now get health care for five years after they’re done, as long as they’re vested.

Think about this: You don’t need health care after five [years], you need it later. That’s when your health starts breaking down. Not when you’re 35.

You’re 58. What kind of health issues do you have that you would attribute to playing football?

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I have back issues. I can’t sleep. My shoulder, I can’t sleep on one side. When I retired, I had to sleep sitting up in a chair for two years. The night before last, I slept in a chair again because I couldn’t lay down. A good night’s sleep for me, if I could get four good hours, man, that’d be great. You talk to them and a lot of players have that same issue. They say, “Man, I don’t sleep.” Just like me. I can fall asleep, but I can’t stay asleep. Not sleeping will cut your life expectancy, it’s a fact.

And then there’s all the head trauma stuff.

All the CTE and all the concussions. And once again, do you think [the NFL] wanted to do anything with these concussions? You think that that was a choice they made?

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Well, they lied about it for years.

Right, they lied about it. They covered it up. But they did [something about it] because they had to, or they were forced to do it. They do all these surveys; it’s funny they did one with me two years ago.

What do you mean, surveys? Like, with ex-players?

They called me and asked me, “Well, we want to see how players feel about the NFL?” And I said, “Are you kidding? You want to ask me that question?”

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Who called you?

A girl called me from the league office—I know her. I said, “Ya’ll want to ask me this question?” She said, “Yeah, cause I know how you are.” She said, “We want the truth.” I said, “Okay, no problem.” I said, “What are ya’ll doing with it?” She said they’re holding this and keeping the survey. So I go out, I’m playing golf that morning, and we’re in Canton at the Hall of Fame. It’s like 8 o’clock in the morning. I said, “What’s the question?” “We want to ask you: How do you feel about the NFL?” I started laughing. I said, “I’ll say this much here: The NFL was good to me; I’ve been able to do things for my mother that I never would have been able to do.” But as far as the NFL, I said, “I hate them fuckers. I hate them. I loved the game so much and they made me hate it at the end.”

She was, like, “Really?” I said, “Most players feel like this.” I said, “They say this ‘We’re family’ crap and I say that’s bullshit. We’re not no family.”

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I said, “The family are the players; now we’re family.” That’s the real talk. I said, “We’re not family to them; they’re a bunch of suits.” So Lawrence Taylor was coming by. I said, “Ask him the same question.” He’s always, like, “What?!” I said, “She has a question to ask you!” He said, “What’s the question?” “How do you feel about the NFL?” He said, “Fuck the NFL. I hate them bastards.” I said, “Boom.”

Same thing, Richard Dent was coming by. “How do you feel about the NFL?” “Aw, man, I hate the NFL! I can’t stand them.” That’s how a lot of players feel about the league. It’s sad to say that. It really is. Because it was something that was good to you. But we didn’t know you could have problems later from playing football. We’re 21 years old. You don’t think about being 60.

I’m curious to see where this goes from here because it seems like you’re the only one being vocal about it.

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I’m outspoken about it, but I talked to Mike Haynes, he said he had an interview, Jack Youngblood said he had one. I’m the guy that’s talking about it more. I guess I’m the guy leading it. Trust me when I tell you, you think I want to do this? No. I didn’t want to do this. It’s like a thankless job, and I’m the bad guy, but the bad guy’s doing nothing bad. I’m just trying to help. That’s what I’m doing.

You still work at FS1? With all that you’re saying, are you worried about your job there, considering their parent company (Fox) is one of the league’s broadcast partners?

Nah. I’m not worried. You heard me say it before: I’m loyal. I’m loyal to this fight, and if they do that, then we know why.