By Jim Litke
AP Sports Columnist
It’s probably a good thing players won’t be required to write “What I did over summer break” essays whenever the NFL finally gets back to work.
During the four months they were largely unsupervised, nearly two dozen went from locked out to locked up, led by former Rutgers wide receiver Kenny Britt, who wound up on the wrong side of the law at least three times in two states — including New Jersey.
Say what you want about OTAs, or organized team activities, those “voluntary” workouts, film-study sessions or bowling and movie outings that every franchise stresses during the offseason. They might not be the most rigorous way to prepare for the season, or as strong a morale-builder as coaches would have you believe. But on the admittedly scant evidence of those recent arrests — for assault, theft, drugs and weapons possession, drunkenness in public or behind the wheel of a car, and just for good measure, resisting arrest — they’re worth every penny as a baby-sitting service.
Yet it’s not just what players did with their free time that wreaked havoc. Several managed to get into trouble just by opening their mouths. The hands-down winner in that category was Steelers linebacker James Harrison, who in the course of an interview with Men’s Journal magazine ripped NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (“devil,” “stupid,” “puppet” and “dictator”) among others, but saved his sharpest digs for teammates Ben Roethlisberger and Rashard Mendenhall.
Critiquing his quarterback’s two-interception performance during Pittsburgh’s loss to Green Bay in the Super Bowl, Harrison said about Roethlisberger, “stop trying to act like Peyton Manning. You ain’t that and you know it, man; you just get paid like he does.”
Setting his sights on Mendenhall next, Harrison called him a “fumble machine.”
During any other offseason, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin would have called Harrison and told him to shut up, if not for his own sake, then at least for the sake of harmony in the locker room. But the lockout prevented Tomlin from even picking up the phone. The good news is that the lockout should end in time for Tomlin to counsel Mendenhall on how to avoid a little pain and a lot of embarrassment.
Mendenhall got his summer break off on the wrong foot just a week into it by endorsing fellow running back Adrian Peterson’s characterization of the NFL as “modern-day slavery” on his Twitter account.
The stir it created was just a preview of what was to follow in May, when soon after the death of Osama bin Laden, he took note of the celebrations taking place, went back to Twitter and posted this: “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.”
Turns out Mendenhall was just warming up. Not long after, he planted himself in the midst of the 9-11 truther movement — and created an uproar on the WFAN airwaves.
“We’ll never know what really happened. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.”
Those tweets caused Champion, a sporting-goods company that had days earlier signed Mendenhall to a four-year extension of his sponsorship deal, to drop him.
Steelers owner Art Rooney II also felt the need to put some distance between the team and Mendenhall, saying in a statement, “I have not spoken with Rashard, so it is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments. The entire Steelers organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.”
The whole mess could — and should — have ended there. And it might have, too, if either Rooney or Tomlin were allowed to make contact with Mendenhall and make clear this was a fight he wasn’t going to win.
Instead, Mendenhall doubled down, filing a lawsuit charging breach of contract earlier this week in federal court in North Carolina, where Champion’s parent company is headquartered.
“For Rashard, this really is not about the money,” said Steven Thompson, a Chicago-based attorney representing Mendenhall. “This is about whether he can express his opinion.”
He can, and has. But so can Champion, which sent a letter Mendenhall’s representatives in May noting that the contract barred him behaving in a way that would bring “public disrepute, contempt, scandal or ridicule, or tending to shock, insult, or offend the majority of the consuming public.”
By my count, Mendenhall went 7 for 7, though there’s no telling what could happen in court — if the case ever gets that far. Then again, has already taken a battering in the court of public opinion. He ought to think about quitting while he’s behind.
Who made the worst impression on you during the lockout? Be heard in the comments below…
(TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS RADIO and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)