To tweet or not to tweet? That is the question facing America's professional sportsmen until a court in North Carolina passes judgment in a landmark case that may establish whether corporate sponsors are entitled to dictate what political opinions an athlete can express via social networks.
At the centre of the dispute is Rashard Mendenhall, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers NFL team. Mendenhall sued Champion, a multinational sportswear company, after it abruptly cancelled an endorsement deal with him almost three months ago. The firm dropped him days after he had used Twitter to express controversial – and largely left-wing – views on Osama bin Laden, race relations and 9/11. He claims that violated a deal they'd signed a year earlier, and is seeking $1m (£610,000) in damages from Champion's parent company, Hansenbrands.
Though the case may, on the face of it, be a simple matter of contract law, Mendenhall is arguing that his right to express a political view has been violated. The athlete, who has almost 55,000 followers on Twitter, is fond of using the microblogging site to explore provocative topics.
Earlier this year, when the NFL – which is run by a cabal of largely right-wing club owners – was involved in a pay dispute with players, he declared: "Anyone with [knowledge] of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other."
And, last week, he linked to an image of a "black Monopoly" board in which every space carried the "go to jail" icon. "If you study the incarceration rates of the US vs other nations, and look at the demographics of race/people imprisoned, [it] makes sense," he commented.
But it was Mendenhall's tweets after the death of Bin Laden that prompted Champion to drop him. As television broadcasts showed crowds of Americans celebrating the terrorist's assassination, he tweeted: "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." He also appeared to express sympathy for the "truther" movement of left-leaning 9/11 conspiracy theorists.
Mendenhall's contract with Champion barred him from actions that would bring him "into public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult, or offend... the consuming public," according to the company's lawyer, Lynette Fuller-Andrews. How much that limits his right to tweet about terrorism, race relations or 9/11 is now a matter for the courts. However, legal experts believe he faces an uphill struggle.Reuse content