Eric Dickerson took noble issue and somehow made NFL look like good guy

Charles Robinson
·NFL columnist

Eric Dickerson is doing OK, but he’s not crazy rich.

Apparently, the NFL should help compensate for that. Why? Because the onetime All-Pro running back was a great player. A Hall of Famer. A touchstone in league history. So he wants a $300,000 a year stipend for himself and all other Hall of Famers. For life. And maybe in death, too.

As messages go, this one is a total mess and extremely unflattering for the players it aims to represent.

But this is what Dickerson has been sharing with the world the past few days. First in a letter to the league, the Hall of Fame and the union, signed by a handful of living Hall of Famers and the wife of deceased NFL star Reggie White. It’s a message that feels awkward and mixed – on one hand, banging a drum for necessary health care coverage for players but on the other hand, adding some self-enrichment for players who already earned top-end NFL salaries during their eras. All while threatening to hold out of future Hall of Fame activities if some kind of agreement isn’t reached.

Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson is leading a group of former players seeking increased compensation from the league. (AP)
Hall of Famer Eric Dickerson is leading a group of former players seeking increased compensation from the league. (AP)

It’s hard to see this as anything less than a legitimate need (health care) married to an awkward reach for the NFL’s gravy train of new money. And you can bet it’s why some Hall of Famers are trying to subtly distance themselves from parts of the effort. Already, guys like Kurt Warner and Jerry Rice said their names shouldn’t have been on the initial letter, while very delicately supporting the health care aspect of the pursuit.

It’s not hard to understand this point. When a Hall of Fame player says, “Guys in the NFL should have their health taken care of later in life,” it’s a noble message. But when a Hall of Fame player essentially says “the NFL has a ton of new money and we laid this foundation,” then throws out a $300,000 salary-for-life suggestion, that cheapens the message. It feels sour, arbitrary and unrealistic. Why $300,000 per year? Why not $50,000? Does the NFL owe Hall of Fame players alimony? Should the league be required to keep players and their families in the style they were accustomed to when the playing checks were rolling in?

How should the NFL feel about paying O.J. Simpson $300,000 a year for the rest of his life? Or Joe Namath, who is unquestionably fortunate that his drunkenly inappropriate, nationally televised “I just wanna kiss you” moment didn’t happen today, when he would have been eviscerated for it.

After dissecting the letter and multiple statements made by Dickerson, this feels more like a ham-handed mistake that badly needed more thought and a better spokesperson. Nobody wants to hear Dickerson talk about how former players aren’t rich and how the NFL today is practically printing money. Especially when Dickerson made good money in his career – both in salary and endorsements – and was free to grow it or lose it as he saw fit.

It’s also worth noting Dickerson was one of the biggest stars to cross the picket lines during the 1987 strike, an act that ultimately helped undermine a union effort to achieve better health care and benefits for players. Another star who scuttled that strike? Lawrence Taylor, who was also on the letter threatening to boycott Hall of Fame activities.

When Dickerson had to put his paychecks on the line in 1987, he folded and abandoned lesser players who didn’t have the star power to push for better benefits. That’s not a great look for anyone arguing for a paycheck for life for the NFL elites – while simultaneously attaching that message to health care for all.

I’m trying to tread lightly here because there is no denying the NFL is overflowing with cash. And the last thing anyone in the world needs is someone strapping on a cape for team owners or the league commissioner, who all make absurd sums of money on an annual basis. Particularly when there are so many things to loathe in the NFL – concussions; domestic violence; officiating; rules; the Colin Kaepernick and Eric Reid sagas; or any multitude of embarrassing issues involving the billionaires who are at the controls.

But as much as the league has problems, I don’t know that its success means it owes living Hall of Fame players and the families of the deceased players $300,000 a year for eternity – a sum that would total nearly $100 million per year and become more expensive with each new class. Simply having health care for players for the remainder of their lives would already be an astronomical expense for the NFL. But at the very least, that can be seen as the cost of doing business in a violent sport that didn’t always make players aware of the dangers they faced. And it would be on top of the NFL’s in-progress concussion settlement, which is expected to exceed $1 billion in claims paid in the next several years.

And when Dickerson talks about how every Hall of Famer deserves a $300,000 a year “stipend” forever, it’s hard to square that with the growing list of recent Hall of Famers who have earned tens of millions (and some more than $100 million or more) during their careers. Consider that the Manning brothers – Peyton and Eli – will eventually go into the Hall having earned roughly $500 million in salary. Does it make sense that they should be included in this? Of course not.

Dickerson and his Hall of Fame fraternity were a unique and irreplaceable part of the NFL. And they are part of an NFL brotherhood that deserves to have its health needs met as the declining years close in. But there’s no denying that being part of a special Hall of Fame fraternity opened doors, built houses, bought cars and paid bills, generally providing a comfortable life and ample opportunity for most of those who achieved the game’s highest honor.

Many didn’t get a piece of the cable network money. Some missed out on the fantasy sports boom that drove NFL popularity to new heights. Others will never see a dime of lucrative gambling platforms that are sure to create rivers of new money in the coming decades. But industries change. Paychecks grow. And some of the richest gravy trains are missed by guys who simply arrived and departed too early.

Dickerson and many Hall of Famers are in that class. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have opportunity. And it doesn’t mean the NFL owes them a $300,000 paycheck for life. Trying to reach for that now through a legitimate health care need is cheap, messy and self-entitled. And frankly, it’s not worthy of the Hall of Fame fraternity it aims to represent.

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