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Harris: Dangerous mix for Mendenhall

| Saturday, May 7, 2011

It looked like the Steelers had upgraded their problematic running game upon selecting Rashard Mendenhall with the No. 23 pick of the 2008 draft.

Now it looks like they may have unearthed another Ricky Williams.

Despite rushing for nearly 2,400 yards and 20 touchdowns in the past two seasons, Mendenhall has unwittingly become the social conscience of the NFL — while living to regret it.

Mendenhall hasn't been accused of sexual assault or striking the mother of his son, as have two of his more celebrated teammates. But his transgression has gained as much attention.

Although well within his First Amendment rights, Mendenhall committed a no-no when he mixed politics and religion with sports.

People can forgive almost anything — Mendenhall's fourth-quarter fumble in Super Bowl XLV, for instance. But they can't — and won't — forget, not for appearing to make light of the horror and tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Champion, an athletic apparel manufacturer, didn't buy Mendenhall's explanation/apology, firing him this week after recently signing him to a four-year contract. Mendenhall had been with the company since 2008.

Is it also bye-bye Steelers for Mendenhall• Team president Art Rooney II said in a statement that "it's hard to explain or even comprehend what he means with his recent Twitter comments.''

But it's unlikely the Steelers will part ways with Mendenhall.

He has two years remaining on a $12.55 million contract featuring $7.125 million in guarantees and a total cash value of $9.855 million that can increase if he meets incentives.

Aside from the financial commitment, the Steelers would open themselves to accusations of operating under a double standard if they released Mendenhall, considering that other players remain on the roster despite their transgressions.

A bigger question is how this controversy will affect Mendenhall.

He tweeted his thoughts about an incendiary subject — questioning celebrations sparked by the killing of Osama bin Laden under the leadership of President Barack Obama — without considering the consequences.

Tribune-Review columnist Salena Zito tweeted that Obama acknowledged Mendenhall's presence at a political fundraiser last month in Chicago: "Rashard Mendenhall is in the house. Chicagoan and Pittsburgh Steeler!'' Mendenhall also attended Obama's inauguration in Washington.

This isn't the first time Mendenhall has been criticized about something he tweeted.

In March, Mendenhall, while supporting Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, drew parallels between slavery and playing in the NFL. That went over badly with the masses — a rich athlete comparing the plight of professional athletes with human bondage.

"I guess when you join the NFL, you revoke your freedom of speech,'' Mendenhall tweeted in response to mounting criticism after using the slavery analogy.

It's too easy to label Mendenhall a knucklehead for speaking his mind. In a country that proudly promotes free speech, Mendenhall did nothing wrong.

But in the court of public opinion, Mendenhall desecrated the American flag. Worse, he seemingly disrespected those who lost loved ones in 9/11.

Soft-spoken and unassuming in public, Mendenhall, who turns 24 next month, showcased his alter ego by describing himself on Twitter as a "conversationalist and professional athlete.''

Like Williams — a former Heisman Trophy winner who wanted to be known for being a complete person more than a great football player — Mendenhall is wired differently than most of his peers.

On April 30, two days before his infamous tweets about bin Laden, Mendenhall tweeted: "I often daydream about burning the money I've made. That way the selfish people around me will be forced to talk about something else.''

A surprise selection who was expected to be gone in the top half of the draft, Mendenhall spent some time with the Steelers at the NFL Scouting Combine but wasn't among the 30 players to interview in Pittsburgh.

"I feel like the Steelers made a great pick,'' Mendenhall said after being drafted.

With Mendenhall's image in tatters, the Steelers can only hope that he didn't speak too soon.

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