Growing up, one of my favorite books of childhood was a thin little tome called Baseball Players Do Amazing Things. It had a picture on the cover of Reds outfielder Bernie Carbo awkwardly sliding into home against the Orioles in the 1970 World Series, and I must have read that thing 27 times over the course of my early, baseball-mad elementary school years.
It struck me Tuesday that if I were to suggest an update of that concept some 40 years later, I'd go with Football Players Say Some Pretty Stupid Stuff. Or tweet it, as the case may be. And yes, I'd have Rashard Mendenhall's picture on the cover.
By now, I'm sure you've heard the gist of the latest Mendenhall postings on Twitter, where Pittsburgh's lead running back shared his thoughts on the death on Osama bin Laden, his reaction to the public's reaction to the news, and his conspiratorial doubts about what really happened on 9/11. It certainly got noticed by the members of the Steelers family, especially team owner Art Rooney II.
Mendenhall is absolutely entitled to his opinions. And he's also entitled to all the fallout that comes with them. Meaning the criticism, the repudiation and the disdain for the thinking he espoused. Thankfully there's freedom of speech in the United States, but that's not to say our words are always free of consequences. You can say what you want, as long as you're willing to deal with what might come next. There are rights, and then there are responsibilities that come with them.
When Mendenhall on Monday questioned the appropriateness of celebrating anyone's death, I happen to think he made a valid and intelligent point, and one a lot of people, me included, had considered as Sunday night's dramatic news unfolded. But he didn't stop there. Oh, no. He went on to tweet: "It's amazing how people can HATE a man they never even heard speak. We've only heard one side...''
Then he followed that up with: "We'll never know what really happened [on 9/11]. I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.''
Two thoughts raced to mind when I learned of Mendenhall's musings. First, a version of the saying that goes "Better to be presumed a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt.'' And second, the line that has always been credited to former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan: "Everyone's entitled to their own opinion. But they are not entitled to their own facts.''
If one wants to question the validity of the basic realities of 9/11, that planes caused the destruction of the Twin Towers, or bestow upon bin Laden the presumption of innocence when he himself took credit for the slaughter, so be it. But you have to deal with the consequences that stem from giving voice to those out-of-left-field opinions. (Mendenhall, on his blog Wednesday, offered a clarification of his comments, saying he was looking only to "generate conversation.")
What exactly is it these days with certain NFL players and their penchant for never having an unexpressed thought? I get it that Twitter has made us all eminently capable of falling into the speak-first, think-later trap, but NFL players really have spewed an impressive amount of utter nonsense in recent months.
Consider the spectacular lack of perspective, the insensitivity or outright ignorance we've witnessed of late:
• Steelers all-world outside linebacker James Harrison last year refused to accompany his Super Bowl-winning team on the customary trip to meet the president at the White House, explaining, "If you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don't win the Super Bowl. So as far as I'm concerned, [President Obama] would have invited Arizona if they had won.'' Uh, yeah. That's kind of how it works, James.
• Vikings all-world running back Adrian Peterson interjected himself into the league's labor stand off this spring, resorting to the kind of mindless hyperbole that exposed him as having zero grasp of history or the plight of people who are or were truly oppressed. Peterson compared an NFL player's lot to "modern-day slavery,'' even if he did forget that football was a career of his choosing, he could retire at any point, and that the game will pay him almost $11 million in 2011. Hardly slave conditions.
• Mendenhall -- here's that deep thinker again -- and Eagles fullback Leonard Weaver quickly supported Peterson's "slave'' assertion. (What is it about NFL running backs in Pennsylvania?) "Anyone with knowledge of the slave trade and the NFL could say that these two parallel each other,'' Mendenhall wrote on Twitter. In reality, anyone with a sense of perspective would say the parallel is patently absurd.
• Giants safety Antrel Rolle last fall ripped the team's fans for booing, making the analogy that fans should support players like soldiers returning from war. "We risk ourselves out there on the field each and every day also,'' Rolle said. "When soldiers come home from Iraq, you don't boo them. I look at it the same way.'' Soldiers don't. Ask them about the risks they take for the monetary rewards they receive. Think they're commensurate with those of NFL players? Think again. And work on those ridiculous comparisons.
• Steelers kicker Jeff Reed helped speed his way out of town after nine years in Pittsburgh by bashing both the team's fans and the Heinz Field playing surface after he missed a 26-yard field goal in a loss at home to the Patriots in mid-November. (When you toss in Ben Roethlisberger's boorish behavior of recent years, I'm starting to think the Steelers have a monopoly on this issue.)
"If you're not perfect in this city, man, then you're going to hear about it, and it's been like that for nine years,'' said Reed, who once was cited for attacking an empty restroom paper-towel dispenser. "Why would they stop now? There's 95 percent of those fans that got my back totally, and that five percent you always hear. They're right by the kicking net, they're bashing me. But you know, that's life, man. You've got to move on.''
Soon thereafter, Reed moved on all right. To San Francisco.
• Redskins running back Clinton Portis took to the radio last season to give his enlightened views on female reporters in the locker room and what they're really after, a topic that seems to come around every few years or so like a lunar eclipse. "You put a woman and give her a choice of 53 athletes, somebody got to be appealing to her,'' Portis said. "You know, somebody got to spark her interest, or she's gonna want somebody. I don't know what kind of woman won't, if you get to go and look at 53 men's packages.''
I don't think this one requires any further comment whatsoever.
• Just last week, Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth proved definitively that Portis is not the only idiot who played for Washington in 2010 (not that either will return in 2011). In defending himself against the charge that he used a credit card to fondle a waitress at a Washington hotel restaurant, Haynesworth said: "I didn't touch her,'' explaining that he doesn't "even like black girls.'' He clarified further by saying: "I know what this is about. She is just upset I have a white girlfriend. I couldn't tell you the last time I dated a black girl. She was trying to get with me.''
(See lack of suitable follow-up comment from aforementioned Portis pronouncement.)
• Buffalo receiver Stevie Johnson dropped a game-winning touchdown pass against Pittsburgh in overtime last November, then took to Twitter to blame God for his misfortune. "I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!! AND THIS IS HOW YOU DO ME!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS???? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO...
Johnson's inconsistent use of question marks is just one of the many, many ways these thoughts are both ill-advised and laughable.
• Houston cornerback Kareem Jackson this offseason went to a cockfight in the Dominican Republic, and then tweeted about the proceedings, even posting a photo of the action. Apparently Jackson missed the whole significance of the Michael Vick dog-fighting saga, even though cockfighting isn't illegal in the D.R. "My first time ever seeing chicken fight till the death it was crazy,'' Jackson tweeted. "Look at all these people that be at these chicken fights, you would think it's a college-football game''
Not even in South Carolina, Kareem.
And we won't even get into the whole Jay Cutler knee injury firestorm, when a bunch of NFL players (and many in the media, too) jumped on Twitter or wherever to speak before they really knew what that they were speaking about. It's really a staggering amount of ignorance that has been on display of late, with a bunch of folks making observations that are at best ill-advised or ill-informed.
Then again, maybe we shouldn't be too surprised by anything an NFL player comes out with these days. In a country where a three-year debate can rage about whether the president is really American-born, despite overwhelming verifying evidence, perhaps anything can be questioned or said, regardless of the facts.
On his Twitter page, Mendenhall describes himself as a "conversationalist and professional athlete.'' More and more in the NFL, those two seem to go hand in hand. Thanks to Mendenhall and his latest batch of insights, I'm starting to think that's not such a great combination. But I'm sure everyone's got their own opinion about that.