Rashard Mendenhall, the 23-year-old Pittsburgh Steeler running back who made news on Monday following his tweets that both questioned the celebration surrounding the death of Osama bin Laden and his involvement in the World Trade Center bombing, made an attempt to clarify his remarks last night.In a blog post linked to his Twitter, Mendenhall admits he can see how what he said may be misinterpreted and thanks those looking to further understanding his comments. In the post, the young yet articulate athlete makes sure to distance himself from the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, asserting that his views do not represent the those of the team. What is very clear in this case as in so many similar ones, is that while no one is arguing against freedom of speech, if you are part of a company and you take to social media in a way that may indirectly harm them, you are subject to discipline from that team. Mendenhall like all athletes has a right to freedom of speech; he does not, however, have freedom from consequences.
“First, I want people to understand that I am not in support of Bin Laden, or against the USA. I understand how devastating 9/11 was to this country and to the people whose families were affected,” he writes. “My heart goes out to the troops who fight for our freedoms everyday, not being certain if they will have the opportunity to return home, and the families who watch their loved ones bravely go off to war.”
Mendenhall continues to explain his tweet that asked, “What kind of person celebrates death?” This is arguably the least controversial of his tweets, and one that most Americans it would seem can understand. There were clearly people around the country and the world who struggled with emotions of elation and how to express them. “I don’t believe that this is an issue of politics or American pride; but one of religion, morality, and human ethics,” writes Mendenhall.
The running back concludes with sincerity. “I apologize for the timing as such a sensitive matter, but it was not meant to do harm. I apologize to anyone I unintentionally harmed with anything that I said, or any hurtful interpretation that was made and put in my name.”
He did not, however, explicitly explain this tweet, one that he eventually took down a day after posting: “@dkeller23 We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.”
Still, Mendenhall may face consequences, but just not yet. Because the owners are currently locking out the players, team officials, such as President Art Rooney II, cannot meet or communicate with players in any way. It was very smart of Mendenhall to come out on his own and clarify and apologize in a very meaningful and thoughtful manner. The NFL lockout, however, is mostly unprecedented for this generation, and there will be questions as to how to in fact discipline players during the lockout when they do not have to report to practice or team meetings- if there is any discipline at all.
Mendenhall has helped his cause, but he is expendable. The Pittsburgh Steelers pride themselves on two things: their play on the field featuring strong defense and a powerful running game, and their character off the field. The club has always and will continue to possess a strong running game, and as quickly as Mendenhall came on the scene a few years ago, he can disappear just as easily as another running back can be put in the backfield alongside their star quarterback and behind a great offensive line. Secondly, the team has demonstrated a low tolerance for off-the-field incidents: they traded Super Bowl MVP Santonio Holmes after a run-in with the law, and the team struggled with the situation of star quarterback Ben Roethlisberger after his altercation at a night club.
The club is already beginning to distance themselves from Mendenhall. Steelers director of football operations, Kevin Colbert, told SiriusXM’s NFL Radio the comments were “ill-advised” and not reflective of the organization. Safety Ryan Clark said Mendenhall is free to say what he wants, but should be careful. “If you do put those type of things out there, people are going to comment on them. It’s going to make news. It’s going to be a big deal when you do something that controversial.” On Monday Rooney said he couldn’t explain the tweets, but reinforced the Steelers pride and support of the U.S. military.
All this is to say that while Mendenhall has a right to free speech, and while some of the things he said can lead to an intelligent and lengthy conversation, he is not free from consequences. Were he on another team, one that was more desperate at the position and one that had lesser regard for character and morality, then he would be safe. The Pittsburgh Steelers, however, are a storied and respectable franchise, and there will be some people in the front office, and more in the stands (Pittsburgh is the city nearest to where the fourth plane crashed on September 11th,) that won’t want to see Mendenhall in the Steelers’ black and gold.