Posted by Will Brinson
Rashard Mendenhall created one of the offseason's biggest controversies when he tweeted some stuff about 9/11 following Osama Bin Laden's death. The tweets got fans all stirred up, drew some remarks from teammates and got him fired as an endorser of Champion.
In response, Mendenhall is -- per CNBC's Darren Rovell -- suing Hanesbrand, the parent company of Champion in North Carolina District Court.
“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,” the suit reads.
In all likelihood, this won't work like a normal "wrongful termination" case -- Mendenhall had a clause in his Champion contract that, per Rovell, allows them to fire him 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.”
The problem here for Mendenhall is that because he's dealing with an issue like 9/11, he'll have an uphill battle to prove that the majority of the consuming public wasn't offended by his comments, particularly given the storm of media coverage it generated.
Additionally, he's seeking monetary damages for his termination, which probably won't play well in the media, despite what his attorneys claim.
"Although the lawsuit seeks damages, this case is truly not about the money," Mendenhall's lawyer Stephen Thompson told Rovell. "In this age of widespread social media, Rashard believes (whether an athlete can be fired for his or her opinions) is an important question for all athletes who serve as celebrity spokespersons, and he intends to pursue this lawsuit to vindicate his rights and those of other athletes caught in this situation."
Perhaps the biggest problem is the resulting image hit that Mendenhall could suffer. Even though he's defending a basic American tenant -- free speech -- he's going to remind everyone in the country exactly why he got fired in the first place; it's unlikely that the general public's stance has changed on his statements since then.
And, of course, he's suing an ex-employer and someone who signed him to an endorsement contract. That's never good for business, particularly if you're trying to find future endorsers.
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