Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall, whose comments about the public reaction to the assassination of terrorist kingpin Osama bin Laden and skepticism about the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, is suing over the loss of $1 million from an endorsement deal.
On July 18, the Steelers’ 2008 draft pick filed a lawsuit in federal court in North Carolina against Hanesbrands, Inc., the parent company of Champion sportswear, claiming breach of contract.
The firm cut off payments on an endorsement contract after Mendenhall posted Twitter messages in May questioning public glee over the bin Laden killing and raising questions about the 9/11 attack engineered by the terrorist.
“What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…” Mendenhall tweeted. His post also raised a skeptical question about the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon: “We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.”
“For Rashard, this really is not about the money. This is about whether he can express his opinion,” Steven Thompson, a Chicago-based attorney representing Mendenhall, said in a statement.
The suit has triggered questions about the price of free speech for an accomplished ballplayer. “An athlete contracts away his free speech rights in signing his endorsement deal,” Jeffrey Standen, a sports law professor and associate dean at Willamette University College of Law in Salem, Ore., said in a statement. “What the sponsor is buying is the athlete’s name and image, and their name and image are related to public behavior and opinions”