BY Deidre Silva 07:00AM 05/20/2011

Silva: Pro athletes choose money over activism

Speaking their minds was once a risk some prominent athletes were willing to take. Now, a mere tweet is enough to demonstrate free speech can be quite costly.

Rashard Mendenhall is one of several athletes who learned it can be costly to run their yap. / Tom Pennington, Getty Images

The annual graduation speech ritual is upon us.

It is the time of year that celebrities, marginal celebrities and wannabe celebrities are invited to schools across the country to bestow wisdom to graduates.

Professional athletes are always big. Lance Armstrong and Billie Jean King are taking to the podium this spring. Michael Vick is in on the action. The convicted felon and Philadelphia Eagles quarterback will address group of troubled teens at Philadelphia’s Camelot Schools.

America’s “leaders of tomorrow,” a very tired term, are getting recycled nuggets such as: Think for yourself. Go forth and lead. Have the spirit of your convictions.

The decree to live such a confident, and strong-willed life is uniquely American. That is, unless you are a professional athlete.

In that case, the advice is: Stick a sock in it.

Fans’ contempt for careless or controversial statements released by professional athletes – often, these days, on Twitter – pales in comparison to the backlash from teams and corporate endorsers.

After Navy Seals succeeded in their mission to kill Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, Rashard Mendenhall, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, tweeted his disdain over what he considered celebration over the terrorist leader’s death.

“What kind of person celebrates death?” he wrote on his Twitter account before adding – and deleting – a tweet that questioned how planes could take down the World Trade Center towers “demolition style.”

Despite releasing a statement later saying his comments were misunderstood and pledging his unwavering support to the troops and the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was dropped as an endorser for athletic apparel company Champion. Company executives evidently grew weary of hearing Mendenhall’s often incendiary viewpoint: Earlier this year, Mendenhall tweeted support of Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson’s assertion that the NFL is like “modern day slavery.”

Champion hired a football player who rushed well and scored touchdowns. The company fired a human being with thoughts and opinions.

Ironically, in the two weeks after his controversial Bin Laden tweet, Mendenhall nearly quadrupled his Twitter followers, going from 13,000 to more than 48,000. Those are the kinds of numbers endorsers like to see.

The default position was not always the expectation that athletes keep quiet. Tennis star Arthur Ashe championed the cause of apartheid long before the issue was in vogue. Jackie Robinson was an outspoken civil rights activist when he could have been satisfied being the player who first integrated major league baseball.

Even so, the damage to income and image always loomed as a consequence to forthright athletes.

Muhammed Ali’s vocal anti-war stance stripped him of his title and had him banned him from boxing for more than three years. Olympians Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised what is now recognized as the black power salute from the podium at the 1968 Mexico City Games. The duo was suspended from the team, banned from the athletes village, ostracized upon their return to America and lived lives of obscurity.

Dr. Maylon Hanold, adjunct professor of sport administration and Leadership at Seattle University, said that while athletes have always been expected to convey a particular image, modern circumstances cast light on their silence.

“Social movement outside of sport has made progress, and this highlights what athletes are not doing,” she said. “Athletes are being asked why they aren’t on the bandwagon.”

Today’s athletes have much greater earning opportunity than their predecessors. Income fueled by the explosion of TV revenues, strong players unions and companies eager for association with figures popular with youth created lucrative partnerships that effectively nudged athletes to keep mum.

After all, it is also uniquely American to gag oneself for the sake of commerce.

Michael Jordan highlighted the trend during the 1996 NBA Finals when he refused to hold Nike accountable when it was found that the manufacturing of his hugely popular Air Jordan shoes included child labor overseas. A few years earlier, he famously snubbed the Democratic challenger to North Carolina’s Republican senator Jesse Helms because, “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”

It is recognized as reckless to speak one’s mind when losing millions in endorsement income hangs in the balance. Sadly, the threat of risking money has turned the ranks of professional athletes into what appears to be a vapid collection of narcissists.

MLB is holding the summer’s All-Star game in Arizona, a state with a controversial anti-immigration policy that disproportionately targets the Latino population. Seeing as though the league is more than one-quarter Hispanic, there is talk that the game will serve as a lightning rod for protest.

The game’s intriguing subplot will be whether some of MLB’s more prominent players chose to participate in the protest, either by voicing opinions or refusing to play.

When Champion discarded Mendenhall, the company took advantage of its time in the limelight to fully tout its belief and value in the roots of American ideology. The company’s public statement severing ties with Mendenhall proudly proclaimed support for the armed forces’ fight against terrorism and its support for First Amendment rights that protect freedom of speech.

Champion’s proclamation rings hollow. It is easy to trumpet support for free speech while wielding the power to mute those who exercise it.


YourThoughts

  • CM

    Champion did not “mute” Mendenhall nor deny him his First Amendment right to free speech.  He can continue to say (or tweet) anything he wishes.  Champion exercised its right not to associate with and pay a player with views it deemed contrary to the company’s best interest.  Like it or not there are consequences to one’s actions.  Those consequences are not contrary to the right of free speech. 

  • CM

    Champion did not “mute” Mendenhall nor deny him his First Amendment right to free speech.  He can continue to say (or tweet) anything he wishes.  Champion exercised its right not to associate with and pay a player with views it deemed contrary to the company’s best interest.  Like it or not there are consequences to one’s actions.  Those consequences are not contrary to the right of free speech. 

  • Wiggen

    Mendenhall is an idiot, as are most professional atheletes.  I have almost no interest in what they say about anything, since it’s almost guaranteed to be stupid.

    Champion was exactly right in what they did.  One would think somebody writing articles on forums would be smart enough to know that the right to free speech merely means the government cannot censor you.  It doesn’t mean you can come out with any ignorant ravings you feel like saying and expect no consequences.

    As for your writer, I suggest she take a short course in Constitutional Law so that she can develop an understanding of what the Bill of Rights gurantees and what it doesn’t 

  • Wiggen

    Mendenhall is an idiot, as are most professional atheletes.  I have almost no interest in what they say about anything, since it’s almost guaranteed to be stupid.

    Champion was exactly right in what they did.  One would think somebody writing articles on forums would be smart enough to know that the right to free speech merely means the government cannot censor you.  It doesn’t mean you can come out with any ignorant ravings you feel like saying and expect no consequences.

    As for your writer, I suggest she take a short course in Constitutional Law so that she can develop an understanding of what the Bill of Rights gurantees and what it doesn’t 

  • Wiggen

    By the way, are ‘troubled teens’ the politically correct way of describing thugs and criminals who you’d walk across the street to avoid if you saw them heading your way? 

  • Wiggen

    By the way, are ‘troubled teens’ the politically correct way of describing thugs and criminals who you’d walk across the street to avoid if you saw them heading your way?