In a case that weaves together issues of free speech, professional sports endorsements and the ever-growing use of social media, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall filed a federal lawsuit Monday against one of his former sponsors.
Mendenhall was hired as an endorser for Champion brand sports apparel in 2008. However, his contract was terminated by Champion's parent company, Hanesbrands Inc., in May after he made controversial comments on Twitter regarding the death of Osama bin Laden and the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
He is seeking more than $1 million in damages as part of his breach of contract lawsuit filed in Winston-Salem, N.C., home of Hanesbrands. A spokesman could not be reached for comment.
According to the complaint, Mendenhall began using Twitter in January 2010.
Before his comments of May 2 -- the day after it was announced that bin Laden had been killed by American military personnel -- he claims Hanesbrands never cared about his posts.
"He said lots of things on lots of subjects and Hanes never had a problem with any of them," said Mendenhall's attorney, Steven J. Thompson, in Chicago.
Among the controversial topics Mendenhall previously addressed, he tweeted about Islam, compared the NFL labor situation to modern-day slavery and called women "selfish."
But it was when he posted about bin Laden's death that Hanes responded.
"What kind of person celebrates death? It's amazing how people can HATE a man they never even heard speak. We've only heard one side ..." he wrote. "We'll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style."
Two days later, Mendenhall linked to a more lengthy explanation of his comments and what he meant by them.
He said they were in response to spontaneous celebrations he saw on television after bin Laden's death was announced.
"He found that, as many Americans did, to be unseemly and inappropriate," Thompson said.
On May 5, Hanes terminated its agreement with Mendenhall.
In a statement released to espn.com May 6, the company said it strongly disagreed with his comments and that they were "inconsistent" with its values.
"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."
Thompson doesn't believe his client regrets the comments, though he does regret how they were twisted and blown out of proportion by the media.
"In this age of widespread social media, Rashard believes this is an important question for all athletes who serve as celebrity spokespersons, and he is pursuing this lawsuit to vindicate his rights and those of other athletes caught in this situation," Thompson said.
The lawsuit will hinge on the reasonableness of the company's decision to terminate Mendenhall's contract, his lawyer said.
"It can be determined by their conduct in dealing with Rashard's comments on other topics and their conduct in dealing with other celebrity endorsers," Thompson said.
Hanes previously used Charlie Sheen as a spokesman, hiring him in 2008 -- two years after he became vocal about a 9/11 conspiracy.
It was only after Sheen's arrest in a domestic dispute at Christmas 2009 that the company terminated its contract with him.
Paula Reed Ward: email@example.com or 412-263-2620.