An oft-repeated tenet of modern public relations is “controlling the message.” The basic idea is to be proactive and “get out in front of a story,” so as to keep media coverage from dictating the narrative.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall tried to pull that off Sunday when he announced his retirement from football on the Huffington Post. Mendenhall explained his decision in a 1,200-word essay, reasoning that he had enjoyed his time in the NFL but a combination of factors have conspired to cause him to call it quits at age 26.
A first-round pick of the Steelers in 2008 after playing at the University of Illinois, Mendenhall averaged 4.1 yards per carry in parts of five seasons with Pittsburgh. His stretch from 2009-11 was particularly effective, as the 5-foot-11 Mendenhall employed a mix of power and shiftiness to accumulate 3,891 yards from scrimmage (3,309 rushing) and 30 touchdowns.
However, a combination of injuries and poorly-timed fumbles – including one in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl 45 – pushed Mendenhall out of favor in Pittsburgh. He played last year for former offensive coordinator Bruce Arians in Arizona, starting 15 games while contributing 821 yards from scrimmage and eight scores.
Mendenhall expressed a list of factors that led to his retirement: a desire to explore the world and his place in it; an increasingly stats-oriented football culture; negativity on social media and its effect on his loved ones; and a general distaste for the entertainment aspects of the sport.
I think Mendenhall over-generalized in some of his complaints, but I do respect his decision to be honest and display his thoughts in a public forum. Ultimately, it’s his body and his life, and he gets to decide what to do with both.
The football fan in me still laments that a man of his talents wasn’t more of a star in the NFL, but Mendenhall’s case reminds us that elite athletes aren’t robots designed to entertain the masses. Sometimes the players don’t derive as much enjoyment from big-time sports culture as the fans do.