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This Rams Legend Is Hellbent on Tackling the NFL’s Racism

Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Thomas Levinson/The Daily Beast/Getty

Eric Dickerson is not romantic about football. He still adores the game with all his heart, but for all the Hall of Fame running back accomplished on the field—the records Dickerson obliterated and the still-present images of his balletic and yet punishing style—he is not blinded by nostalgia.

“I love football, but a part of me despises it,” Dickerson writes in his recently released autobiography, Watch My Smoke. “The sport that defines me, that gave me some of the best moments of my life and the privilege my kids enjoy now, has also made me so unhappy, and feeling so mistreated.”

Jarring contradictions like those have trailed the now 61-year-old Dickerson throughout his life, as he recounts with righteous, unsparing prose in the book, co-written with People magazine editor Greg Hanlon. Growing up in deeply segregated rural Texas at a time when many Jim Crow remained intact, the prejudices were self-evident. And yet, according to Dickerson, the bigotries were never more manifest than when he was sitting at the absolute apex of his chosen profession—smashing rushing records and shredding opposing defenses, with all the attendant riches and fame the NFL promised.

From the team owner that spewed the N-word and other bigoted slurs as a possibly drunken attempt at comedy; the non-scandal over a gold Trans Am gifted by boosters as an incitement to sign with a major college program; the fans who screamed bloody murder, or sent hate mail calling him a “monkey” and telling him to “go back to Africa”; to the press which turned to ancient stereotypes of the entitled, spoiled, and therefore angry Black man, all because he dared insist to be rightly compensated for his labor.

Now, Dickerson is fighting on behalf of his fellow NFL veterans, railing against the league and, at times, the NFLPA. As Dickerson sees it, the league has failed to recognize, reward, and care for the athletes who built the game, many of whom are struggling with the long-term health impacts. And the ongoing exploitation by nearly 100 percent white ownership class of a majority-Black sport is impossible for him to ignore.

The battles with the union haven’t abated, either. Dickerson has been particularly critical of NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith. When reached by phone, Dickerson called Smith a “fucking joke,” who had caved to the owners’ demands. In response, Smith labeled Dickerson as a “highly paid scab” who betrayed his fellow players because he crossed the picket lines during the 1987 strike.

Asked if the NFL has changed fundamentally since his playing days, which spanned 11 seasons and included six trips to the Pro Bowl, the fastest ever to top 10,000 yards, his number 29 retired by the Rams, and a spot on the NFL’s 100th Anniversary All-Time Team, Dickerson had a typically direct and unvarnished response.

"No,” he told The Daily Beast. “A little bit. Not a lot.” For all the ways in which the racial issues in the league were far more self-evident back then, the essential problems haven’t been solved, Dickerson said.

Contracts remain unguaranteed, and despite the gaudy numbers announced at a signing, a player can be dropped and the contract ended at a moment’s notice; it took until this summer for the NFL to scrap the practice of “race norming”—assuming Black players who filed as part of the $1 billion concussion settlement began with lower levels of cognitive ability, and therefore were due lesser payouts. Only three current head coaches and three general managers are Black. (Brian Flores, a Black man fired by the Miami Dolphins, is suing the NFL for racial discrimination.) If it weren’t for a national referendum on race and state-sanctioned violence during the summer of 2020, odds are, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wouldn’t have apologized to Colin Kaepernick.

The NFL responded to Kaepernick as it always had to controversy, Dickerson said: throw some cash at a problem and issue a few seriously worded, stern press releases. Maybe paint some bland, inoffensive slogans in end zones, and eventually, these thorny topics will fade from the public consciousness.

This summer, when Tim Tebow was signed by the Jacksonville Jaguars—despite having not played a down in five years—Dickerson told TMZ, “It’s bullshit,”

“That’s bullshit,” he repeated. “That’s how the NFL is. You know, it’s different for us.”

The latter sentence is one Dickerson cites often in the book and more than once in our phone call. To him, a certain percentage of white Americans can’t really comprehend the totality of the Black experience, how the indignities pile up in subtle and wholly unsubtle ways. His mother, who worked as a housekeeper, was the first to spell it out.

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When Dickerson was being punished by a coach or teacher who seemed to take their frustrations out on a Black kid, or some white kid called him “Kunta Kinte,” his mom repeated her dictum about it being different, adding: “Even if you’re two or three times better, sometimes it’s just not enough.” When it came to football, Dickerson surpassed that bar.

In Sealy, Texas, a hardscrabble town about 50 miles from Houston, high-school football reigned supreme. The best players—the ones with a shot at winning a scholarship and the chance to pull themselves and their families out of poverty—were treated like “gods,” he writes. Dickerson worshiped them, too.

By the time Dickerson had joined their ranks, major football programs were all over him. Texas A&M, some 70 miles away from Sealy, was seen as the hometown favorite. They were relentless in their pursuit, Dickerson writes, sending recruiters and coaches to hound him and his family. One came bearing a briefcase containing $50,000. (The money was returned.) The gold Trans Am came next. He accepted it, and signaled his intent to sign with A&M. In the end, Dickerson decided to play for Southern Methodist University, which only increased the outrage. Since then, Dickerson has always pleaded his innocence. His grandmother bought the new ride. In his book, Dickerson finally comes clean.

Yes, technically, the gleaming sports car was put under his grandmother’s name, but saying she bought it wasn’t exactly true. An A&M booster made it happen. Within a few years, SMU would be subjected to a wide-ranging investigation by both the NCAA and the feds into the back-room payoffs and under-the-table deals funded by wealthy boosters. After being put on probation and hit with a series of sanctions throughout the early ’80s, the program received the “death penalty” in 1987, effectively ending the school’s short stint as an NCAA powerhouse.

These days, Dickerson sees the vehicle, and the small stipend he received as emblematic of the corruption endemic to college sports and a far greater, if generally accepted crime.

“I hate the NCAA. They act like a bunch of pimps,” he said, profiting from the work done by mostly young, Black men and funneling the profits to largely white-run institutions. “They've pimped these kids for so long. I mean, they made all these trillions off of these kids, me included.” The NCAA did not respond to a request for comment.

So how much he might have been able to earn had the ability to profit from the merchandising and licensing of his name, as college athletes can now? Dickerson laughs. If nothing else, all of the pearl-clutching and moralizing over the gold Trans Am never would have taken place.

Dickerson still considers it a half measure. The scholarships often don't allow so many of the highest profile amateur athletes to reap the full benefits of that free ride. “You’re an indentured servant,” said Dickerson. “It’s a nice way of saying slavery.”

In 1983, Dickerson was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams and almost immediately took the league by storm. He blew past the record for rushing yards by a rookie, and the following year, set the all-time record for yards in a season. Both records still stand.

There was a suddenness to Dickerson’s upright, graceful, and yet sudden running style, with explosive bursts that arrived out of nowhere and, in retrospect, appeared inevitable. The impression was of an older, faster brother picking and choosing when to wreak havoc on a younger sibling.

Dickerson would agree.“God gave me such a talent,” he said. “And I mean, second to no one’s talent. I mean to no one. And that’s just the fact." As only Eric Dickerson could do, he framed this answer as an example of him not bragging. Dickerson also devotes and entire chapter his book to his unique look on the field, signature goggles included, which he asserts made him look like “Darth Fucking Vader.”

NFL stardom offered other perks as well. He writes extensively of the night life in Los Angeles, hobnobbing with celebrities, and spending time with a wide variety of sexual partners. He also got to see Muhammad Ali literally float. Dickerson swears it’s true: Ali levitated off the ground at a charity event in a Denver hospital. The champ put his hands together as if meditating or praying and rose up off the ground. According to Dickerson, he repeated this tale to 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr. and Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham, who saw Ali perform the same feat.

But for all those successes, Dickerson feels he never was fairly compensated. He’d been ripped off, Dickerson writes—an all-too common story, for many Black athletes. Expressing those displeasures resulted in him being ripped by the sports press, labeled a “malcontent” or “greedy” or “not a team player,” all of which served as a polite way of calling him “uppity.”

The pro athletes Dickerson counts as his peers have been dealt an equally unfair hand or worse. “Why do the ex-players get treated so much like yesterday's garbage?” he asked.

Dickerson’s main point of contention is the relatively meager health benefits and pension plans. The growth of the NFL doesn’t irk Dickerson. In fact, he’s quick to praise Commissioner Goodell and others for turning it into the most-watched sport in America. The actual workers who built the league, from the greats to the rank-and-file, deserve a greater cut.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Haymarket Books</div>
Haymarket Books

As an example, Dickerson tells the story of visiting former Rams star defensive lineman Deacon Jones in hospital a little over a decade ago. (Jones died in 2013.) He asked Dickerson to guess how much he was receiving for his pension. Dickerson recalls pegging it at $1,500 per month. “I get two-hundred-and-fucking-fifty dollars a month,” Dickerson recalled Jones replying. “$250 a month. What am I going to do with $250?”

Dickerson continued: “That man deserves more than $250 a month. That’s the sad part.”

Much of the blame, he believes, falls at the feet of DeMaurice Smith, the current head of the NFL Players Association. Once again, Dickerson doesn’t pull any punches.

“He is a fucking joke,” said Dickerson, describing the union’s efforts as lacking when compared to the victories that have been won in other sports. Dickerson is far from the only NFL player or keen observer to be critical of Smith’s tenure. The new collective bargaining agreement, which will be in effect through the 2030 season and passed by a narrow margin, did increase pension payments, but reduced disability payments to some retired players. The current crop of athletes don’t realize how much power they actually have, Dickerson explained, but they’re unable or unwilling to flex their muscles.

Smith, though, bore the brunt of Dickerson’s ire.

“We are just a bunch of house Negros under his leadership,” he said. “House Negros. And I wish you’d write that.”

In an emailed statement, Smith called Dickerson’s comments “absurd” and described him as a “high profile and highly paid scab who crossed the union picket line in 1987 and left his brothers and their families on strike for better pensions, health care, salaries and benefits.”

Dickerson firmly rejected Smith's characterization of his actions during the strike, insisting that he never did actually betray his union brethren or actually cross the picket lines. At the time, Dickerson was still holding out, trying to renegotiate a new contract.

Smith continued: “A coward is someone who is afraid to make tough decisions, thinks about himself over others and will look for every chance to sell others short to get a buck for themselves. Unlike Gene Upshaw, Reggie White, Steve Jordan and other Hall of Famers who fought for their brethren, Eric made his choice about who he wanted to be long ago.”

Though he regrets not getting involved with the union’s efforts back then, when it comes to Smith, Dickerson did not relent. “[Smith] sells guys out," he said, referring to the new 10-year CBA. “He sold us out.”

Like many former pros, Dickerson wonders what playing football will take from him next. In interviews and televised appearances, he still cuts a handsome, youthful appearance. Squint and you’d swear he could still rip off the occasional 85-yard gain.

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But he’s more than aware of the impact playing football for a living has had and may continue to have on his own health. There are moments when Dickerson can feel as if his emotions are boiling over, or as if the anger might overcome him.

It’s a problem he’s discussed with many former players. More than anything, he hopes his mental faculties won’t deteriorate further over time. “I pray I don’t become the guy who doesn’t recognize his kids,” he writes. “That’s my greatest fear.”

If his 9-year-old son were to tell him he wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps, knowing what he knows now, he would do everything in his power to stop him. In his book, Dickerson says were he informed way back then, he probably wouldn’t have played either. Dickerson also stressed that whatever protestations the league made about being in the dark about the link between playing football at any level and traumatic brain injuries, “they knew,” he said. They just had enough power and money to pretend otherwise.

Dickerson was quick to praise the women—the wives, the mothers, the children—many of whom never expected to become full-time caregivers. Often they lack the resources, time, and training to adequately perform these necessary tasks.

"The women have to deal with our old asses after we stop playing football,” said Dickerson. “They’re the ones that are dealing with the broken pieces of an ex-football player.”

It’s not surprising then, that Dickerson has devoted his post-career to advocating on behalf of retired players, trying to ensure that everyone who ever strapped on a pair of pads has their health benefits covered for life, plus an increase in pension payments. In 2018, he and about 20 NFL greats wrote a letter to Goodell and Smith, threatening to skip the Hall of Fame induction ceremony unless they received a larger portion of the billions the NFL earns in revenue annually. The planned boycott didn’t materialize in the end. Reportedly, Dickerson decided to bail on Super Bowl LVI, which the Rams ultimately won, because he was offered seats in the nosebleed section.

Dickerson also co-founded the group Young Warriors, a nonprofit dedicated to mentoring young men ages 8-18, many of whom come from fatherless families. Right before the pandemic, Dickerson visited a prison as part of a Young Warriors outreach program. He asked the approximately 100 inmates he was speaking with how many had grown up with a man in the house. Only 10 did. To Dickerson, who never really got to know his biological father until he was already an adult, it drove home how important it was to have a positive male presence in their lives. This too, he writes, is part and parcel of seeking “social and racial justice in America, it’s also unending.”

When it comes to real, long-lasting changes in the NFL, though, Dickerson offered a different prescription: seize control of the means of production.

“It’s not going to change until you get people of color in power—until you get Black people in power,” said Dickerson. That meant not just coaches and general managers, but actual positions of authority, both in the owner’s box and the commissioner’s office.

“If we had a Black commissioner, if we had Black ownership, that’s the only way it’s going to change,” he continued. “And the NFL? I’m going to say this: They’re not having that.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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