Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall has filed a lawsuit against Hanesbrands, which terminated his endorsement deal after controversial tweets about Usama bin Laden and the 9/11 attacks, CNBC reported Monday.
Sports apparel maker Champion, owned by Hanesbrands, ended its relationship with the 24-year-old Mendenhall May 5, refusing to pay him the more than $1 million remaining on the next five years of his contract.
"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," the lawsuit stated.
Mendenhall caused an uproar in the aftermath of bin Laden’s May 1 death at the hands of US troops, even questioning the official account of the 9/11 attacks.
"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," Mendenhall tweeted.
He went on to say, "We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition-style."
Though Mendenhall apologized for the remarks a few days later, saying they were "only meant to encourage [people] to think," Champion still opted to terminate its contract with the running back. Mendenhall had a deal with Champion in his first three seasons, and signed a four-year extension just days before the inflammatory remarks, the report stated.
"Although the lawsuit seeks damages, this case is truly not about the money," said Mendenhall’s lawyer Stephen Thompson, according to CNBC.
"In this age of widespread social media, Rashard believes [the case represents] an important question for all athletes who serve as celebrity spokespersons, and he intends to pursue this lawsuit to vindicate his rights and those of other athletes caught in this situation."
The suit was filed in federal court in North Carolina, where Hanesbrands is based.