Americans sure know how to get riled up. Every week we find some new, mundane thing to get upset about. This week it was Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back Rashard Mendenhall’s tweets about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. Mendenhall tweeted his concern about celebrating death and alluded to his disbelief that planes alone took down the World Trade Center on 9/11. He later clarified his tweets with this blog post. As a professional speechwriter and media coach, I wouldn’t have advised him to clarify in long form, in particular, after looking at his tweets which were pretty benign. However, his clarification was thoughtful and pretty touching even if you disagree.
Unfortunately, a very bored sports media got hold of the story and with the help of the mainstream media they proceeded to squeeze every drop of relevancy they could out of it—which is quite a feat since there wasn’t much to begin with. First of all, Mendenhall is not an elected official nor is he a pundit or other expert whose opinions influence domestic or international thought or policy. Secondly, in the scheme of “popular” National Football League players, Mendenhall is far from top tier.
The media’s, and subsequently the public’s, reaction to Mendenhall’s tweets is an embarrassing display of how “outrage-driven” today’s media is as well as how aggressively it seeks search engine optimization. Web content managers know that the NFL is in the midst of the a lockout, twitter is a popular social media network, and Osama Bin Laden was the most searched term of the week. NFL + Twitter + Osama Bin Laden = high search engine results for articles on Mendenhall’s tweets.
ESPN took things a step further and held a special “twitter edition” of “Outside the Lines” in which they discussed athletes on twitter. No surprise that there was nary a mention of the network’s incessant promotion of the story for the sake of clicks and ratings. The media sold this story under the umbrella of “yet another athlete says something really stupid.” But the reality is that Mendenhall’s tweets were not stupid, they simply reflected an unpopular opinion.
Actually, I’d correct that and say his opinion was unwanted more than it was unpopular. And reactions were based on the media’s narrative and not what Mendenhall actually tweeted. A perfect storm for a public full of lazy headline readers. The general consensus seemed to be “Why would he tweet his opinion when he knew the media would run with it and people would get upset?” I always find positions like that to be odd, because it treats the media and the pubic (and the individual making the statement) as though they are not in control of their own emotions and reactions. It also lets the media off the hook for its blatant issue-baiting.
There was absolutely no reason for such a strong and negative reaction to one non-political man’s opinion. It’s almost as if people were outraged because they believed they were SUPPOSED to be. In searching most of the commentary on this—whether tweets or article comments, people mainly seemed to understand why “other” hypothetical people were upset but weren’t actually upset themselves.
Apparently, we’ve come to a point in the media cycle where we’re angry at people for the potential their comments have to offend rather than because their comments were actually offensive. If that doesn’t tell you how far the media has fallen into the gutter, nothing will.
I have to point out that over the years many in the African American community have lamented the fact that black athletes aren’t politically active. The argument is that we need them to be given the fact that they hold such a large amount of the community’s wealth. The reaction to Mendenhall is a very good example of why many athletes choose to quietly support charities for children rather than taking a bigger risk and vocally attaching themselves to adult issues which tend to be more controversial.
Now that Mendenhall has been fired from his deal with Champion, which, in its statement made NO reference to what exactly Mendenhall said that prompted the firing, you can see that expressing any opinion can be detrimental to players’ livelihoods. And with football players having such short careers, they can’t risk that kind of financial harm just to exercise their first amendment right.
I believe that any one in the public eye should use care with their words; however, the fact is that in the current media environment it is very hard to tell what the media will take and turn into a story at any given time. I keep hearing people say Mendenhall should have practiced better PR, but even public relations professionals are toughing out the new sillier media landscape when it comes to gauging the reaction of the media and public to any given item.
Plus a slow news day can produce any number of asinine stories that on a heavier day wouldn’t be a blip on the radar. And now that sports media has become just as 24/7 as the rest of the media, athletes are subject to much of the same “trolling” for comments by the journalists that other celebrities have long submitted to. Yes, sports reporters are TROLLS now, and although I’m sure some reporters love it, If sports journalism is reporting on Brett Favre’s penis and who tweeted what I’ll pass indefinitely.
Freedom of speech will always be accompanied by consequences, and Mendenhall must face that fact just like any other public figure. However, we have to acknowledge that there is a concerted effort on the part of the media to create controversy where there is none. The only surefire way for public figures to avoid such a backlash at one point or another is to never become successful in the first place.
I’d like to believe that at some point the public will develop outrage fatigue and stop allowing the media to drum up faux controversy, but it doesn’t look like that will be happening any time soon.