Principals of the Ken Norton Personal Management Co., the agency handling Eric Dickerson's business affairs, charged Wednesday that John Shaw, the Rams' vice president for finance, had reneged on a verbal agreement to negotiate a three-year extension of Dickerson's contract through the 1989 season.
Lawyer David Epstein said he considered that to be a breach of Dickerson's current contract, which runs through 1986, with no option clause.
"I've advised Eric that I don't believe he has any further obligation to play while they're in breach of their contract," Epstein said. "He's not required to go ahead and perform (because of their) failure to go ahead with the extended contract. What if he went out and got injured?"
Norton said they haven't advised Dickerson not to report to the Ram training camp with other veterans on July 29.
"We'll discuss it before it happens," the former heavyweight boxing champion said.
But Epstein said: "If the Rams don't come to their senses. . . . "
And associate Jack Rodri added: "It doesn't look good."
Norton said: "We're all in it together, but the ultimate decision is Eric's."
Dickerson, who set a National Football League rushing record with 2,105 yards last season, was no easier to catch Wednesday. Rodri said that Dickerson was ducking the turmoil.
When Dickerson dropped in at Rams Park this week and found himself surrounded by reporters, he said good-naturedly: "I ain't talkin,' 'cause I know what the main topic's gonna be."
Shaw, a lawyer-accountant, is the Rams' second in command. Told of the accusation that he had reneged, he said: "Sorry, I have no comment."
Is it all a big misunderstanding? Is this merely one of the games lawyers play?
Rodri said: "Their strategy is to test our nerves. But we are not easily intimidated. We don't cave in so easily."
Last month, Rodri wrote Shaw a two-line letter requesting a meeting.
According to Rodri, Shaw phoned back and asked: "What do you want to talk about?"
When Shaw was told the subject would be more money for Dickerson, Rodri said Shaw responded: "I'll bring Jay along because, actually, I don't do much negotiating anymore."
Shaw's assistant is Jay Zygmunt, also a lawyer-accountant.
"But Jay never opened his mouth," Rodri said.
Shaw and Zygmunt met Norton, Rodri and Epstein June 21 at the Norton-Rodri offices in Los Angeles, then went to lunch.
Epstein said: "After an extended discussion, it was agreed by all the parties present that the Rams would give him an extension to his contract, and that we would negotiate immediately the terms, and that we would negotiate in good faith."
The group met again June 27 at Epstein's office in Century City.
"At that meeting, we made a proposal for Eric, consistent with the agreement that we extend his contract, along the lines of what the top running backs make," Epstein said. "It was nothing unusual or extraordinary. In fact, John Shaw--and I'm quoting him--said the proposal was 'very fair.' "
But then, Epstein said, the tone of the meeting changed. According to Epstein, Shaw "made an analysis of what he believed other running backs were being paid and concluded by saying he was going to renege--my characterization of his words--on the original agreement.
"In all my 21 years of negotiating, I had never seen this tactic before.
"At this point, we are going to stand on the binding contract that Eric has--that they are going to extend. That is a binding contract, and he has legal rights that come from that. The fact it was verbal does not change it.
"It doesn't have to be in writing. People all the time make major deals just on their good word, their good faith and a handshake, and they're enforceable in court."
The fine point in dispute, then, is the claim by Dickerson's representatives that the alleged oral agreement by Shaw to give Dickerson a three-year extension and Shaw's subsequent switch constitutes breach of all contracts.
Nobody would disclose the specific figures discussed, but Rodri said: "It was not out of sight at all. It was within the range of what is being paid the top running backs."
John Riggins of the Washington Redskins will earn $800,000 this season, followed by the Chicago Bears' Walter Payton and the New York Jets' Freeman McNeil at $685,000 each, and the Detroit Lions' Billy Sims at $650,000. Dickerson is due to receive $350,000--the lowest of his series of four one-year contracts that total $2.2 million.
After reviewing some of those figures in what Rodri described as a "45-minute rhetoric," Shaw left Dickerson's representatives with these words, Rodri said:
"We don't have a counter-proposal for you. If you don't hear from us in 24 hours, you can consider your proposal rejected."
What happened in the six days between meetings?
According to Rodri, Shaw "had no intention to negotiate. He just wanted to know where we were at."
Epstein seemed to appeal to a higher authority, Georgia Frontiere.
"I have absolutely no reason to believe the owner is aware of what's going on," he said. "Eric is completely dismayed, absolutely flabbergasted. There is no reason to believe the owner is going to treat Eric unfairly."
Frontiere was due to return from her annual London holiday this week. Shaw also was in London the last two weeks, on business, he said.
If the business had anything to do with Dickerson, Epstein said, "I can't believe she would give instructions to treat Eric that way, to fool around with an athlete of that caliber."
Rodri said: "The only thing that I can figure is that the first time (Shaw) made this commitment he went beyond his authority and he had to retract."
Epstein said: "I'm not thinking that at all. I think Shaw's free-lancing . . . has some strategy up his sleeve."
So what's the next move?
"Nothing," Rodri said. "Absolutely nothing. I certainly am not going to call (Shaw). That's for certain. I have nothing to say to him."
On the other hand, Rodri said, if Shaw calls him, "We now come to the table with a completely new blank page. If he thinks all the information we gave him is foundation for further negotiations, he's out of his mind."
Epstein said: "For me, we're reviewing all the legal alternatives. John Shaw is refusing to go ahead with the agreement that was entered into."
But barring favorable legal rulings, the only trump card Dickerson's representatives hold is a holdout.
"There's no reason to think things will change before reporting time," Rodri said. "But we still have 11 days before we have to make that decision."