The following article was written by Spencer Wingate.
Rashard Mendenhall’s twitter page describes the football player as not only a professional athlete but also a conversationalist. A series of tweets following the death of Osama bin Laden last year sparked quite a bit of conversation and also led Mendenhall to lose his endorsement contract with Hanesbrands. In a series of five tweets, Mendenhall first stated: “What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how many people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side”. Mendenhall added several more tweets questioning what people are thinking by rejoicing over death, being ignorant and not realizing God is our judge. Needless to say, the tweets generated quite a public stir.
Mendenhall’s endorsement deal with Hanesbrands, which owns Champion, had included a moral clause. The clause originally only contained language detailing the contract could be terminated for a criminal offense or investigation. It was additionally altered to include if Mendenhall created a public dispute, caused contempt, ridicule, shock, or insult the deal could be terminated. Hanesbrands felt the tweets gave them grounds to void the endorsement deal. Mendenhall filed a lawsuit following the decision and has at least temporarily, garnered a legal victory. Chief Judge James A. Beaty denied a motion for judgment on the pleadings by Hanesbrands and questioned if they had the right to terminate Mendenhall’s deal.
Hanesbrands believes the court should not be reexamining their decision as it was fair and just. The judge’s ruling means the court believes, at least in theory, Mendenhall may have a case. He needs to demonstrate that even though the tweets led to backlash, some of the public stood behind him and even supported his comments. Just because Hanesbrands disagreed with his comments does not necessarily give them grounds for dismissal.
In an analysis regarding the lawsuit, Eric Goldman correctly pointed out it is illusionary to think a company will agree with everything their endorsers say or believe. The case brings up issues of intellectual property rights and the First Amendment. Private companies are not compelled with the same restrictions of freedom of speech as the federal government. They are allowed to protect their brand and in a way, control their athletes. However, Twitter offers the public a rare spectacle into an athlete’s life and beliefs. It creates quite a conundrum for a company to regulate tweets or restrict them. Mendenhall is in no way guaranteed a victory in the case, but now if he can demonstrate the Twitter rumble was not the public upheaval Hanesbrands believes, he might just find a way to win.