Not for sale: Mendenhall's voice
The Steelers' running back lost an endorsement but gained the right to be heard
On Sept. 11, 2001, I was living in Hell's Kitchen, 49th Street and 10th Avenue, covering the New York Yankees for the Bergen Record.
So many memories of that day will not fade. Reporter first, baseball writer second, I was sent out with the paper's other staffers who lived in Manhattan to roam the city, to listen and to gather. At what would become known as ground zero, the most authentic battle stripes of the rescue workers were their footwear. The ones whose boots were caked with grayish-white ash had already gone in, had seen their co-workers who would never come out. The ones whose boots were clean hadn't yet entered the crater of the dead.
I remember a woman at my local bar, Druid's on 50th and 10th, sitting in my favorite corner. A tour bus driver sat next to her, working his cell phone, trying frantically and -- at that moment -- unsuccessfully to locate his daughter. It was around 4 p.m., less than eight hours after America had suffered its greatest wound. I recall nothing else about the woman -- her face, her build, the sound of her voice -- but I will never forget her furious relentlessness.
"We had it coming," she said in the middle of a heated discussion. "Do you know how many little kids around the world play in vacant lots that have unexploded shells with the U.S. flag on them? So many parts of the third world suffer every day from what we've done to them -- for money, for oil -- and somebody finally got us back. It was only a matter of time."
She continued about how America's lies had caught up with it and that there was no possible way Flight 93 had been taken down by courageous passengers, as was the sketchy rumor at the time, but rather by the U.S. military.
"We shot that plane down," she said. "It was heading for the White House. You know it. Have you ever tried making a cell phone call at 30,000 feet?"
The killing of Osama bin Laden a week-and-a-half ago returned America back to that day. And like then, sports were not immune from spontaneous responses to the news, from the raucous scene at Citizen's Bank Park, where the Mets and Phillies were playing, to Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall's tweets about the reaction to bin Laden's death. Those opinions cost Mendenhall his sponsorship with the sportswear giant Champion and raised questions about free speech and control in the age of social media.
While Champion apparently had no issues with Mendenhall's public positions on men and women, parenting or the role of oral sex (or lack thereof) in the success of relationships -- all of which have been subject matter on Mendenhall's Twitter account -- the company decided the running back's theories, feelings and expressions regarding bin Laden were bad for business. After the news broke of the mission to capture or kill bin Laden in Pakistan a-week-and-a-half ago, Mendenhall tweeted a string of thoughts similar to conversations going on in taverns around town and the nation that weren't exactly jingoistic,weren't exactly in line with fans at Citizen's Bank Park chanting "U-S-A!" following the announcement of bin Laden's death.
Mendenhall was quickly dropped by Champion, which issued with this statement:
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"Champion is a strong supporter of the government's efforts to fight terrorism and is very appreciative of the dedication and commitment of the U.S. Armed Forces. Earlier this week, Rashard Mendenhall, who endorses Champion products, expressed personal comments and opinions regarding Osama bin Laden and the September 11 terrorist attacks that were inconsistent with the values of the Champion brand and with which we strongly disagreed. In light of these comments, Champion was obliged to conduct a business assessment to determine whether Mr. Mendenhall could continue to effectively communicate on behalf of and represent Champion with consumers.
"While we respect Mr. Mendenhall's right to express sincere thoughts regarding potentially controversial topics, we no longer believe that Mr. Mendenhall can appropriately represent Champion and we have notified Mr. Mendenhall that we are ending our business relationship. Champion has appreciated its association with Mr. Mendenhall during his early professional football career and found him to be a dedicated and conscientious young athlete. We sincerely wish him all the best."
Tension has always existed between the public's desire to know, understand and be close to its golden heroes and just how much it really wants of an athlete's opinions on matters other than sports -- whether those opinions be Curt Schilling's political leanings; Tim Tebow's religion; Gary Sheffield or Ozzie Guillen's thoughts on race; or the latest from hockey: New York Rangers bruiser Sean Avery's support of same-sex marriage. On one hand, we lament that professional athletes have become too distant from the rest of us because of the money and fame to be found in sports; on the other hand, we take a "shut up and play" mentality when the same athletes have something unpopular to say.
The emerging world of social media is challenging and increasing that tension. And it is especially relevant to the athletes' employers, who are not only trying to convert on third-and-short but trying desperately to sell a product. Players are both employees and individual corporate brands. Indeed, many of the best players in sports earn more from endorsements than from salary. While teams and corporations spend millions to control their corporate images and messages, the worlds of Twitter and Facebook can leave them exposed to the free-form thoughts of their high-profile pitchmen.
Mendenhall's tweets regarding the raucous celebrations outside the White House and in other places in response to bin Laden's death were astute and completely appropriate, not to mention far more useful than the misogyny that underlined his previous posts. They were no different than the issues being debated by millions of ordinary folk on Twitter and Facebook and at the bar and the work cafeteria. Bin Laden's death evoked powerful emotions. For me, it brought on odd and conflicting feelings: a sense of pain that his assassination was necessary in the first place but also relief because of its necessity.
However, it did not bring me joy, and watching Americans celebrate bin Laden's death as if their team had just won the World Series was difficult and, in a sense, frightening, for another chapter in this war is surely coming. The images of celebrations were uncomfortable for me, because I don't believe death should ever create a sense of party-level happiness. This wasn't a buzzer-beater, in celebration of which fans could storm the court. At best, many of the American celebrations were an inappropriate reaction to an extremely complex situation; at worst, they were an unfortunate bout of national amnesia. It should be remembered that after Sept. 11, 2001, scores of people in other parts of the world were cheering the attacks while we were burying our dead.
The issue between Mendenhall and Champion is as much about control as free speech. Mendenhall, who belatedly attempted to clarify his remarks (and removed the more offensive comments toward women from his Twitter account), sold his free speech rights when he signed on to the sponsorship deal. He took Champion's money. It decided he was not representing the company in a positive manner, and dumping him is well within Champion's right as a company.
Control is the true price of the money, and the choice of the athlete is clear: If you don't want a corporation judging your feelings, don't take its money.
The endorsement game is one area in which the choice belongs to the player. But if professional teams believe the effects of a player's opinions on the brand must be considered, a new battleground -- franchise management deciding whether players will be allowed to use social media -- cannot be far away.
The deliverance of the athlete out of the dumb-jock stereotype is a continuing process. Mendenhall's great error was not in engaging in a political discussion but in taking Champion's money in the first place. There are a few athletes who can skillfully navigate the controversial. Charles Barkley, perhaps most notably, has been able to transform his outrageousness and passion into a saleable asset. Because of Barkley's force of personality, he can safely issue comments that might end the careers of others. Most of the rest, however, remain quiet, understanding the consequence of candor will be Mendenhall-style severe and the endorsement checks will cease.
The headlines say Mendenhall was fired by Champion. But in a real sense, he was liberated. He regained a commodity -- his right to speak his mind -- that should never be for sale.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston," and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42
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