Steelers RB Rashard Mendenhall yesterday filed suit against Hanesbrands, "asking for more than $1 million in damages" after the company's Champion brand terminated his endorsement deal in May, according to Darren Rovell of CNBC.com. After Champion ended the sponsorship "due to tweets related to Osama Bin Laden's involvement in Sept. 11," the company said that it "would immediately end the relationship with Mendenhall and wouldn’t pay him for the five years and the remaining $1 million-plus on his contract." The lawsuit filed yesterday in North Carolina District Court reads in part, "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." Rovell noted it remains to be seen if Champion "had the right to terminate" Mendenhall's contract, which did "have a version of a morals clause." Champion execs "obviously thought that they were covered." Rovell also noted Hanesbrands "had no problem hiring Charlie Sheen on its payroll even though he has said plenty of controversial things about 9/11." Hanes ended its deal with the actor in January '10 "because of domestic violence charges" (CNBC.com, 7/18).
CAN MENDENHALL PROVE HIS CASE? Mendenhall's attorney, Steven Thompson, said that the lawsuit "will hinge on the reasonableness of the company's decision to terminate Mendenhall's contract." Mendenhall claims that Hanesbrands "never cared about his posts" on Twitter "before his comments of May 2 -- the day after it was announced that bin Laden had been killed by American military personnel." Thompson said, "He said lots of things on lots of subjects and Hanes never had a problem with any of them." In Pittsburgh, Paula Reed Ward notes among the "controversial topics Mendenhall previously addressed, he tweeted about Islam, compared the NFL labor situation to modern-day slavery and called women 'selfish'" (PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE, 7/19). CBSSPORTS.com's Will Brinson wrote, "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. ... 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" (CBSSPORTS.com, 7/18).