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Mendenhall remarks grow legs

Super Bowl XLV

ARLINGTON, TX - FEBRUARY 06: Rashard Mendenhall #34 of the Pittsburgh Steelers celebrates after he scored an 8-yard rushing touchdown against the Green Bay Packers in the second half during Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium on February 6, 2011 in Arlington, Texas. The Packers won 31-25. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

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On Monday, Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall raised eyebrows with some controversial remarks regarding Osama bin Laden. Mendenhall also expressed doubt regarding whether a plane could cause a skyscraper to collapse.

The remarks created enough of a stir to prompt Steelers owner Art Rooney, II, to issue a statement via the team’s official website.

Which has caused the story to become even larger.

Mendenhall’s name has been “trending” on Twitter for at least the last two hours, which means that he is being mentioned in enough Twitter messages to put him among the most-referenced words and phrases in the nation. The extent to which his views on bin Laden and 9/11 will continue to draw attention isn’t known, but we’ve got a feeling the furor won’t be dying down soon.

And so, as we pointed out on today’s edition of PFT Live (shame on you if you missed it), the Steelers likely won’t be dumping Mendenhall in the immediate future, especially if the lockout wipes out any chance of getting a replacement ready for 2011. But Mendenhall plays a position that is among the most interchangeable in pro football, and if the Steelers decide to move on, it won’t be impossible to find a new tailback.

This isn’t a matter of free speech, a right that we respect, honor, and cherish. It’s about business, and football players are in the entertainment business. For the same reasons that actors and singers sometimes find themselves vilified for making unpopular political comments, athletes can suffer the same fate. The difference, of course, is that athletes rarely make politically inflammatory statements.

Mendenhall has, on a very sensitive topic at a very unfortunate time. The mere fact that Rooney felt compelled to respond so quickly confirms that it’s a big deal. How big of a deal it becomes will be a big factor in the Steelers’ ultimate decisions regarding their former first-round pick.