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Let’s Take Another Lunch : Dickerson and Rams Need Face-to-Face Meeting to End Seven-Week Holdout : Commentary

Times Staff Writer

Eric Dickerson’s return from Sealy, Tex., this past week led to the most bizarre phase of his seven-week holdout from the Rams.

On Monday, the principals met for lunch at the exclusive Regency Club in Westwood, but there was no negotiating and hardly anyone digested his meal.

Then on Wednesday, Dickerson decided he would report if the Rams made “a good-faith offer,” but he didn’t phone that proposal to the Rams.

Instead, he held a press conference at the Hyatt Wilshire, touching off a rapid sequence of events:

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Reporters raced to the Rams with the news, seeking a response.

“Dickerson says he’ll report if you make him a ‘good-faith’ offer,” they told Coach John Robinson.

Robinson, after consulting with the front office, responded, in so many words: “Tell him to take a hike.”

The reporters carried this message back to Dickerson adviser Jack Rodri: “They say he can take a hike.”

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Is this any way to conduct power negotiations? Why didn’t somebody bring it up when they all had lunch Monday? Would they rather trust the press to get the message straight?

At this point it has become a domestic squabble.

“Tell him I think he’s a jerk.”

“Tell her it takes one to know one.”

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Where can it all end?

If Dickerson holds out all season, as he has said he is willing to do, he won’t gain a thing. When he comes back next season, he’ll have the same two years remaining on his contract. “Tolling” a contract, the league’s legal brains call it.

The principle was established long ago in the National Football League and affirmed in 1980 as a spinoff of John Riggins’ year-long holdout with the Washington Redskins.

“Tolling a contract is pretty well established in this league for players who refuse to perform their services,” says Jan Van Duser, the NFL’s director of operations.

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“It’s in the player contract. It also covers retirements, suspensions and other things that might keep a player out. If Eric Dickerson were to stay out, he would back up everything and play ’86 under his ’85 contract. You don’t use up a contract sitting home.”

Dick Berthelsen, the NFL Player Association’s legal counsel, agreed.

“If a player refuses to perform, when he returns the contract is tolled,” Berthelsen said.

Like Dickerson, Riggins had two years remaining, but Riggins got lucky.

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He returned in ’81 to play out the two years originally contracted for ’80 and ’81, and after the ’82 season he found himself to be the most valuable player in the Super Bowl--and a free agent. Not only that, but the United States Football League then sent NFL salaries soaring. Riggins wound up as the highest-paid runner in football.

Dickerson isn’t likely to be so lucky, but he isn’t in a bad situation, either. He has received $1.675 million of his $2.2 million, four-year agreement, and the Rams have said they are willing to write an extension, paying him what he calls the “going rate” for top NFL runners.

A party close to the Ram front office said he didn’t think $1 million a year would be out of line, especially considering it wouldn’t start until 1987. That’s even more than Marcus Allen will earn, but by ’87 it might be a bargain.

The Rams might even extract an agreement from Dickerson not to hold out until the extended contract has expired. The trade-off for Dickerson could be a skill guarantee, meaning he would receive the money even if, say, in ’87 he could no longer get to the line of scrimmage without Bill Bain carrying him under his arm.

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Twenty-six players in the NFL--about 2%--have skill guarantees. They are all exceptional players. So is Dickerson, and even his avowed nemesis, Ram vice president John Shaw, recognizes that.

An important point: Dickerson is not yet alienated from the Rams. He hasn’t demanded a trade.

“I haven’t asked the Rams to be traded,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be traded.”

Robinson says the Rams haven’t been called about a possible trade, “and we would hang up on anybody that did.”

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Dickerson is suffering an inner conflict.

“A great part of me says I want to play football,” he says. “I’m a football player. I love to play football. But, hey, I’ve got to get paid for playing football. It’s kind of depressing when you look in the paper and see offensive linemen making $700,000 and you’re making $200,000 (his ’85 salary, after a $150,000 reporting bonus).

“I’m sorry it’s come to this. That’s all I can say: I’m sorry.”

Despite his regrets, opinion seems to be running heavily against Dickerson, not only in the street but now in his former clubhouse, places where he was once highly popular.

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“I don’t think it (the holdout) is gonna hurt my reputation,” he says. “I’m a good guy, no matter what.”

And maybe John Shaw isn’t such a bad guy, after all. Maybe they should sit down and talk about it.

Ram Notes

Coach John Robinson said Charles White would start at tailback against the Eagles Sunday. Barry Redden didn’t practice Thursday, and a medical spokesman said his sprained right ankle was still swollen and perhaps slightly worse than a week earlier after playing the first half against Denver. Robinson, asked if White would be relieved of some of his special teams’ duties, said: “Heck, no. He’s on a full scholarship.” Seriously, White probably will play only on the kickoff return team, which might not see much action. The Eagles were shut out by the Giants last Sunday, 21-0. . . . Still no developments in the situation of so-called “free agent” Greg Meisner, last year’s starting nose tackle. The Rams withdrew their offer of $160,000--which Meisner had refused--and reverted to the minimal qualifying offer of $96,800 simply to retain his rights. They have been trying to trade him, but nobody has been interested at the Rams’ asking price, believed to be a third-round draft choice. . . . The Rams will leave for Philadelphia this afternoon after a light morning practice. . . . Offensive tackle Jackie Slater and his wife, Annie, became parents for the first time on Monday. Matthew Wilson Slater weighed 7 pounds, 3 ounces.

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