Few things drive home just how quickly the cycle moves more than encountering a new development in a story you’d long forgotten, and that feels like ancient history…only in reality, that story began just 2 1/2 months ago. That story: the controversial tweets Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall sent in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death in early May. Mendenhall started by expressing disbelief that people could celebrate the death of another so heartily…but then, he went into 9/11 truther territory (“I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style”).
Unsurprisingly, those words had consequences for Mendenhall: namely, the loss of his endorsement deal with Champion. Anyone could have seen it coming: while Mendenhall had a right to voice his opinion, however bizarre it was, Champion decided he could “no longer…appropriately represent Champion,” and from our vantage point, it was hard to disagree.
That wasn’t the end of the story, however, and it brings us to the development we saw earlier this afternoon from CNBC’s Darren Rovell: Mendenhall is suing Champion, seeking over $1 million in damages. The suit purports to be about much more than money, however:
“This case involves the core question of whether an athlete employed as a celebrity endorser loses the right to express opinions simply because the company whose products he endorses might disagree with some (but not all) of those opinions.”
Couple problems here: one, Mendenhall wasn’t terminated “simply because” Champion disagreed with him. He was terminated because nearly every potential buyer of Champion products not only vehemently disagreed with Mendenhall, but actually found some of his views disturbing. Second, Mendenhall didn’t lose the right to express opinions, period – he lost the right to express certain incredibly inflammatory opinions while also holding a million-dollar endorsement deal. He didn’t get arrested, he got dropped by a brand. You sign on with a provate company for big bucks, you play by some different rules.
What Rovell wondered, though, is if Champion actually had the right to let go of Mendenhall, based on the terms of the deal. The contract did allow for circumstances under which the it could be dropped, including if Mendenhall…
“commits or is arrested for any crime or becomes involved in any situation or occurrence tending to bring Mendenhall into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the majority of the consuming public.”
Mendenhall’s tweets, as crazy as they were, certainly did not constitute a crime. We think Champion has something in the second part, though. We’d say Mendenhall brought himself into public disrepute, and we’d guess he offended more people than not. We think it was smart for Mendenhall to file this suit – hey, if he has any chance at all for vindication/recouping the lost money, he might as well give it a shot. But the terms of the deal specifying what Mendenhall could be terminated for really didn’t specify much at all – and therefore, we’d guess Champion has enough wiggle room here that they won’t give Mendenhall much of a chance.