Cook: Steelers' Mendenhall has right to free speech

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I said it a year ago when a lot of people insisted they wouldn't support the Steelers as long as Ben Roethlisberger is the quarterback. I'll say it again now when many want to chase running back Rashard Mendenhall out of town because he went public with an opinion that differed from theirs.

Be careful what you wish for, Steelers fans.

You might regret it later.

Not that Mendenhall is going anywhere.

Nor should he.

Sorry.

The Steelers will be right to stand behind Mendenhall, who shared his controversial Twitter thoughts Monday on Osama bin Laden's death and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, just as they stood behind Roethlisberger when he faced rape allegations last spring. It's because he's a star player, sure. He's on the verge of becoming a big-time NFL back. No one will argue that the team wouldn't cut the third-string guard if he did what Mendenhall did or, for that matter, faced the accusations that Roethlisberger did. The guard wouldn't be worth the headaches. No, releasing him for giving his opinion or facing unsubstantiated allegations wouldn't be fair or just. But since when did life become fair and just?

My guess is Steelers president Art Rooney II, who quickly distanced himself and the team from Mendenhall's comments, will call him into his office when the NFL lockout ends. He will tell him he appreciates his right to have an opinion, but that he should be a little more thoughtful and careful with expressing it, especially if it's going to put the organization in any kind of a bad light. I'm also guessing coach Mike Tomlin will share that same message with the team early in training camp and make sure the players understand that, although the new social media can be cool, it can be dangerous. Even in cyberspace, public figures are scrutinized every second of every day and have to live their life accordingly.

Then, Rooney and Tomlin will send Mendenhall out with instructions to run for 100 yards and three touchdowns in the opening game against the Baltimore Ravens on, coincidentally, Sept. 11.

If that happens and Mendenhall has a big game, he will be cheered the following Sunday at Heinz Field during the home opener against the Seattle Seahawks.

What?

Did you not see many of the same fans who wanted Roethlisberger gone cheer him when he played well last season?

Most fans -- I didn't say all -- will cheer just about anyone if he helps their team win.

I should say here I strongly disagree with Mendenhall's opinions, especially the one that questioned bin Laden's role in the 9/11 attacks. But I do respect his right to have that opinion. The last time I checked, this is America. One of the great things about our country is we're all entitled to our thoughts, even football players. That is one of our most precious freedoms.

I also respect Mendenhall for having the nerve to put his name on his beliefs. This Internet age would be such a better time if there were more people like him in that regard and fewer of the people who need the strength from anonymity to spout off their hurtful thoughts and opinions. They wouldn't be nearly so courageous without that anonymity. They are gutless, really.

Mendenhall clarified his Twitter remarks Wednesday, saying he wasn't anti-American or pro-bin Laden. He didn't say he regretted sharing his opinions, but he did apologize to anyone he might have offended. That was good enough for me. But for a lot of others? Not so much. They didn't buy Mendenhall's clarification. Not even when he stressed he was expressing his religious views, not his political views. That was a bit surprising to me because Mendenhall certainly isn't alone with those feelings. A lot of people of faith are struggling with the celebration of bin Laden's death. They recognized him as the face of evil on Earth, but they also have been taught through their religious training that all sins are forgivable. Those hardly are compatible feelings.

I know some people will never look at Mendenhall the same again, no matter how much clarifying he does. But it hardly means his Steelers career is finished or that he can't be a popular player here again, as many have suggested. I heard the same thing last year with Roethlisberger, although not nearly so much after he led the Steelers to the Super Bowl. Funny how that works, isn't it?

This Mendenhall storm, too, will pass.

There will be other controversies between now and the start of the NFL season, maybe even a few involving Steelers. I thought there was one Thursday when I saw a TMZ.com headline that blared, "NFL Star Hines Ward Handcuffed At Gunpoint!" It turned out that was the result of a misunderstanding after a traffic stop in Los Angeles. Ward soon was on his way, free to dance again. Of course, that doesn't mean one of his teammates won't be in the news today or next week or next month.

The point is it's May. The anger caused by Mendenhall's comments is fresh and real. His many critics are loud and unforgiving. But check back with me in September, especially if he gets off to a fast start against the Ravens and Seahawks. Tell me then how many critics he has. I don't think you'll have a hard time being heard over them.


Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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