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Analyst: Champion-Mendenhall divorce a multifaceted move

  • By NFL.com
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Champion waited just three days to drop Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall as an endorser after his controversial comments about Osama bin Laden's death created a national stir.

Thursday's move might have served two purposes: to disassociate the athletic apparel manufacturer from a controversy while trying to attract consumers.

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» Steelers' reaction to tweets

"I'd bet more than 99 percent of sports fans didn't even know that Rashard Mendenhall had a deal with Champion," CNBC sports business reporter Darren Rovell told NFL.com on Friday. "They did a terrible job. So distancing themselves from him in a public way allows them to make a stand and also let people think about their brand.

"Mendenhall's words can't be condoned, but I'm pretty surprised how quickly Champion made their decision."

Mendenhall tweeted Monday in response to the sweeping joy over last weekend's announcement that a U.S. military team had killed bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, in a Pakistani mansion. Mendenhall first wrote, "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...," and followed with tweets questioning what really happened in New York on Sept. 11, 2001 -- "I just have a hard time believing a plan could take a skyscraper down demolition style" -- and encouraging his followers on the social platform to "think."

Champion thought those comments were too much, even though Mendenhall later apologized. Spokesman Matt Hall told USA Today on Thursday that it didn't believe Mendenhall could "appropriately represent Champion" because of the tweets.

"Champion is a strong supporter of the government's efforts to fight terrorism and is very appreciative of the dedication and commitment of the U.S. Armed Forces," the company said in a statement.

Rovell noted Friday that higher-profile athletes such as Michael Vick (Nike), Tiger Woods (AT&T, Accenture and Gatorade), Kobe Bryant (Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Nutella), and Michael Phelps (Kellogg's) lost endorsement deals after controversies, but he was surprised by the speed at which Champion moved on from Mendenhall, who had just signed a new four-year deal with the company.

"While I was shocked by Mendenhall's words, I was equally surprised with Champion's quick reaction," Rovell said. "It appears to me like a company trying to take advantage of a hot news cycle to take a quick stand and get publicity out of it. I'm not sure any standard morals clause covers Mendenhall's right to have an opinion, and that might mean the company will have to pay him his entire contract to get rid of him."

Mendenhall's case also serves as a warning to other athletes who use social media to interact with fans.

"By its nature, Twitter is out of context," Rovell said. "It's only 140 characters. Athletes need to understand that tweeting about sex, race, religion, or any controversy puts them behind the 8-ball."

Especially with companies who have consumers to lure and millions to lose.

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