Rashard Mendenhall Sues Champion – Good Move?
This week, Pittsburgh Steeler’s running back Rashard Mendenhall sued Hanesbrand, parent company of his ex-sponsor Champion apparel, for $1,000,000 for their termination of his endorsement contract with them. As you may recall, on the night that United States forces killed Osama Bin Laden, Mendenhall used his Twitter account to voice his opinion about the killing of Bin Laden. Specifically, Mendenhall tweeted the following:
“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
In regards to the 9/11 attacks he continued:
“I’m not convinced he was even behind the attacks we have really seen no
evidence to prove it other than the gov telling us.”
Those tweets were condemned by just about everyone. Shortly thereafter, Champion terminated its deal with Mendenhall which went through April 2015, stating that “while we respect Mr. Mendenhall’s right to express sincere thoughts regarding potentially controversial topics, we no longer believe that Mr. Mendenhall can appropriately represent Champion.”
While Mendenhall could have just kept his head down and let this fall by the wayside, he decided to fight for the remainder of his contract. And while its nearly impossible to make a sensible public relations case or defense for Rashard, this suit does raise a very interesting legal issue – can an athlete or celebrity be in breach of a moral turpitude clause of a contract just for voicing an opinion?
Almost every endorsement, appearance, or performance agreement involving a public figure includes a moral turpitude clause that gives the hiring party the option to void the contract if the public figure is in violation of the moral turpitude clause. These clauses are fairly standard in language, and Rashard’s deal with Champion was no different.
According to CNBC’s Darren Rovell, the language in Mendenhall’s deal stated that Champion had the right to terminate Mendenhall if he “commits or is arrested for any crime or becomes involved in any situation or occurrence tending to bring Mendenhall into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the majority of the consuming public.” As far as moral turpitude clauses go, this one is actually fairly broad, as it seems to cover any situation where Mendenhall is involved in a scandal that offends the public, and is not limited to just specific actions by Mendenhall.
However, Mendenhall’s legal team thinks he has a case. According to the suit – “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”. To be sure, this is a very interesting question moving forward, especially as celebrities have more and more ways and means to express themselves to large groups of people. But upon a closer look at the language of Mendenhall’s contract, it seems like he’s arguing a case that he can’t make for himself.
The language of his contract seems to clearly state that if Mendenhall “….becomes involved in any situation or occurrence tending to bring Mendenhall into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult or offend the majority of the consuming public” he will be in violation of his agreement with Champion. Given that his comments were wildly read throughout the internet and on newspapers across the country, and were almost unanimously condemned and ridiculed by both pundits and the public, its pretty obvious that his actions are in breach of his moral turpitude clause. A plain language interpretation yields a poor result for Mendenhall in this fight. His lawyers seem to be focusing on the fact that Champion didn’t agree with what Mendenhall’s opinion was on Bin Laden, and that they can’t terminate him for that. And they may be correct about that. But the language for termination isn’t based on Mendenhall being at odds with the morals of Champion. Its based on him denigrating himself through his actions in such a way that offends the majority of the public, which he clearly did.
The basis of 95% of all moral turpitude clauses are not because celebrities need to live up to the morals the company sets forth. Rather it is to ensure that the company is getting what it is paying for. As a spokesperson for a company, there is an understanding that the reason a company is working with the celebrity is because of the value of that celebrity’s reputation and recommendation in the marketplace. Once a celebrity has tarnished that through their actions, they no longer provide that same value to the company. Both Michael Vick and Tiger Woods lost endorsement contracts for their actions based on this. If your spokesperson is no longer worth the millions of dollars you were paying him to endorse your products, the company needs a way to get out of those deals. That is the purpose of a moral turpitude clause.
Had Mendenhall’s contractual language been more finely tailored to limit his moral turpitude to just specific acts or arrests, and not included the broader language of insulting or offending the majority of the public, he may have had a stronger legal footing. But the language here actually seems to contemplate this specific type of scenario, where Mendenhall’s words or actions insulted and offended the masses. And there seems to be no doubt that is what occurred here.
Beyond the legal case, which he will likely lose, Mendenhall is on a slippery public relations slope. While his comments were big news when he made them, he has largely avoided the spotlight since then. And while this story will probably never be entirely wiped off of his Wikipedia page, the masses were beginning to forget, as they tend to do. Now Mendenhall has gone to great lengths to remind everyone of what he said, and in doing so further tarnished his image. If there was a slam-dunk case for him to win the $1,000,000, it may have been worth it. But since that case is dubious at best, he’s now left without an endorsement deal and is reminding fans and sponsors why he’s not a good person to be doing business with. Mendenhall is putting all of his eggs in this one endorsement basket. As it was, he was unlikely to garner any other national endorsement opportunities. That is even more so the case now that he has taken it to the courts.
It seems like Rashard has gotten some bad advice, because this is a loss in the courtroom, a loss in the court of public opinion, and a loss in the endorsement game.