Rashard Mendenhall’s Retirement Article Is A Wake Up Call About Sports Culture

Reports circulated late Saturday night that former Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall was planning to retire. The former first-round draft selection confirmed as much yesterday in an article published on the Huffington Post entitled, unambiguously, “Why I Retired at 26”.

I took it as a refreshing reminder that athletes are more than just athletes, the sum total of their athletic contributions to the sports entertainment industry. And from that perspective, it is hardly surprising that a person could be willing to step away from a game he loves after 17 years of doing it, six years professionally.

Former Steelers head coach Chuck Noll, winner of the organization’s first four Super Bowl trophies, is famous for speaking to his players as peers, and talking to them about “their life’s work”, or life after football—the bulk of one’s existence. Their Life’s Work is the title of a recent book on the 1970s Steelers written by Gary M. Pomerantz; such is the legacy of Noll’s coaching ethos.

It was surely easier to comprehend then: to comprehend that athletes are so much more than what little they leave of themselves on the practice fields and in stadiums.

It was easier because so many athletes worked regular jobs during the offseason. It was easier because they weren’t multi-millionaires, with hundreds of thousands of followers on Twitter in their senior year of high school.

It was our own patronage that changed the financial structures of the sporting world, and with it the culture. It changed the way we view the game and those who play it. It changed the way the players view themselves.

Mendenhall wrote about how the game is no longer the same game that he grew up with—a common refrain among older fans. He wrote about the changes that he saw:

Today, game-day cameras follow the most popular players on teams…practice non-participants are reported throughout the week for predicted fantasy value; and success and failure for skill players is measured solely in stats and fantasy points. This is a very different model of football than the one I grew up with.

Perhaps Mendenhall is right. Perhaps the sport has become so commercialized and sensationalized that it’s changed those who choose to play the game, or at least altered their ambitions to do so.

As the motivations for playing further and further lean toward fame and fortune, and less about the love of the sport, we are only breeding a future class of athletes who may well be just, mere, athletes, and nothing more.

But there are so many, such as Mendenhall, who buck the trend, that to stereotype is unfair. It’s just that we’re so rarely reminded of the utter humanity of the players we watch inhumanly smack into each other for our amusement.

In this respect, Mendenhall seems almost like a Renaissance man—somebody who doesn’t have a singular focus in life, whose areas of interest transcend the acquisition of material gains and physical excellence.

Mendenhall seeks much more than that out of his life, and he has every right to pursue it. He wants to start by writing and traveling. He is not beholden to anybody; he owes no debt on behalf of the fame and fortune that he earned through the commercial system created out of our own interest.

He may now gradually fade from the public eye, but that doesn’t mean that his life has regressed into something less than what it was when the cameras were on him every Sunday dodging linebackers.

Mendenhall is 26 years old, and all things considered, through a broken shoulder blade, a torn ACL, turf toe, and a litany of other minor aches and pains, is healthy. And he wants to keep that health in pursuing his other interests in life.

“I no longer wish to put my body at risk for the sake of entertainment”, he writes. “I am not an entertainer. I never have been. Playing that role was never easy for me”. He wants to live life in a different way than is afforded to professional athletes.

As for the question of what will I do now, with an entire life in front of me? I say to that, I will LIVE! I plan to live in a way that I never have before, and that is freely, able to fully be me, without the expectation of representing any league, club, shield or city. I do have a plan going forward, but I will admit that I do not know how things will totally shape out.

Because of the culture that we’ve helped create surrounding athletic entertainment, and entertainment in general, we’ve made it increasingly difficult on ourselves to put things in perspective. We forget that these athletes are just people, not rigidly defined by some stereotype, all uniquely different from one another.

Sometimes it materializes in the way we interact with players, and how we treat them as something less than human, a utile object no longer efficiently serving its function.

Athletes hear it every time they make a mistake. Mendenhall has lost count of how many times somebody who knows nothing about him has called him a ‘dumb nigger’.

In the sporting world, Mendenhall’s legacy will be of one who had a span of quality play that was marred at the end by injuries. He will be remembered because he spun too much, and fumbled the ball in the Super Bowl.

Maybe he’ll even be remembered for the 50-yard sprint into the end zone in overtime in the opening game of the 2010 season, when the season outlook seemed bleak with Ben Roethlisberger serving a four-game suspension.

That victory over the Atlanta Falcons helped right a ship and buoy spirits that propelled the Steelers to the championship game, giving Mendenhall the chance to be remembered for that fumble.

His legacy will inevitably include comments about Osama bin Laden and 9/11, and his ‘insubordination’ of not showing up to a game for which he was informed he would be inactive.

These are the events that will define his public legacy.

But it won’t be what defines Mendenhall, not for himself. Mendenhall was a football player. He was a football player in various stages for the last 17 years. And now, he has the freedom to be just Rashard Mendenhall.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • steeltown

    Mad respect for this guy.. he is totally correct in his assessment, the sports culture has changed immensely. Hell even his Bin Laden comments were merely opinion on how saddened it made him to see Americans rejoice at death (regardless of who it was) Mendenhall is a smart guy and he seems very insightful. I wish him well on his Life’s journey.

  • Bill Molinaro

    Mendenhall is a player who never fit the mold of an NFL player. I’ve been around people who think too much and their thoughts carry them around in an inconclusive circle. I think he might be such a person. A characteristic of the type is that they never seem to accomplish what it appears they can. So, he laments the change in the game; well welcome to the real world! We all experience those changes in our careers and we don’t like them either. But he can quit and leave it all behind and the only reason he can is because of the system that he now denigrates. If regular people retired at 26, they would live in a refrigerator box. Yes, I liked football better in the 70s but there are only two sure things in life: death and change.

  • Luke Shabro

    I really disagreed with what Mendenhall said before about 9/11 but I wasn’t upset the Steelers didn’t cut him or anything like that. He does seem like a very intelligent guy and it really drives me bananas when people see football players as just that. They are people. Just like when people were cheering when Cassell and Schaub got injured. What is wrong with you? That’s somebody’s father/brother/son. In reality all we know is what we see on the field and what is put out through the media. People also seem to care nothing about the sport outside of fantasy. Is the guy a fantasy performer? If not then forget him. It’s a dumb mentality and it’s amazing to me that that’s all that people care about. I was never what you would call athletically gifted, I played rugby but was never the fastest or strongest, the thing that attracts me to both rugby and football is the team aspect. It’s cool to hear Rashard talking about joking around with his teammates. Kudos to him for leaving when he felt it was time instead of just chasing the money. He leaves with his body at least moderately intact.

  • Bruce Hake

    Its funny how Mendenhall now wants to bite the hand that fed him because he has no money saved! He has always been selfish and is not exhibiting nothing less than that now.

  • dkoy85

    You’re ridiculous. I wish the moderators would remove this comment.

  • Tom Savastano

    Shouldn’t the draft interview process clearly displayed his personality and what appears to be lack of love for the sport.. Def shud have been a flag or two to at least push him down several rounds.

  • Luke Shabro

    I wouldn’t say he had a lack of love for the sport. I think the piece that he wrote himself shows that he loved the game and loved the team aspect but seemingly became tired of the culture that the NFL has become.

  • Luke Shabro

    If he had no money saved I would think he’d be saying how bad he still wants to play and would work to get the biggest deal he could. Your comment doesn’t logically make much sense.

  • Alexander Sebastian Heath

    Agree. Bruce, you are a disturbing person. My alcoholic biological father whom is dying and I have no relationship with once told me after the loss of Steelers vs Patriots in AFC Champion 04′ “win or lose, its still a show”. And he was drunk, moronic, still managed to give a better insight than you, Bruce.

    And yes because of my father’s remark, I have been less emotional with the outcomes (i’d used to throw a bad tantrum) and looking at recently Super Bowl with Peyton’s performance. He just might be right. Oh yeah. Mendenhall knew he doesn’t have things handed to him and the article only got me saying “Good for him!”.

    Not many athletes look ahead, many lived for football, after they are done, they end up work as a car salesman or on street. Football and general professional sporting industry is tough and driven. Much like WWE, if the wrestler is very popular, they will be sure he wins the match for the sake of show itself.

    No I do not entirely believe that every games are fixed. Deeply inside, I do believe sports do play its course, naturally despite what media factors caused, I don’t see that everything are scripted. You might call me a religious football fan but… I do sense plenty of conspiracy theories because they come to comfort ourselves more, as humans we developed the tools to ask questions, not to know the answers. Its in our nature, which is why as much less emotional I am about the game itself, I still love the game just same.

  • Tom Savastano

    Maybe that was poor wording on my part.. His personality to me would have been a flag like character issues are for others.. Especially when your investing a 1st round pick on someone.. IMO

  • Luke Shabro

    I could see that. I don’t know if it was necessarily a lack of passion for football but I was concerned myself when I heard that he went on IR his rookie year and he basically never came to back to team facilities.

  • Alexander Sebastian Heath

    What in the world are you talking about? Players ARE allowed to have personalities! You can not love the game nor be motivated and still perform very well! Seem like you really believe in socialism, no offense.

  • Steelers12328882

    I think the truth is that the most he would have received this year is a 1 year deal around the vet min. Somewhere around 700k. Balancing that along with his desire to do ‘other’ things is really why he’s retiring. It’s probably a little easier to retire at 26, travel and write poetry when you’ve earned 15 million in 6 years, not to mention his endorsement deal with Champion before they dumped him. I always liked Mendenhall through college and into the pros, and I have no regrets about us drafting him, but the game changed a long time before he was a part of it. I think he’s a lot better off in life because of it too.

  • pat

    I totally agree with you and I will remember for the good he did for us that overtime run against the falcons with no Ben is probably my favorite memory of him

  • Tom Savastano

    Your reading too much into my comment..no offense… All im saying is the draft scrutinizes so many aspects of a player on and off the field.. A player retiring healthy at 26 leaving $ on the table is unique.. Can that uniqueness be identified in the drafting interviews.

  • cencalsteeler

    Growing up in my era, all the kids wanted to grow up and become a professional athletes. Nowadays, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. Mendy has some very valid points, IMO.

  • Virdin Barzey

    I agree. He never was an typical NFL player and its funny how he views it as entertainment. That tells us a lot about Mendy. In truth sports are entertainment but its funny that it took the NFL for him to figure it out and its not what he want to do any more. Good for him but to poo-poo on the league that gave him so much lets me know it was never about the game for him.

    In reality, its hard for me to believe he loved the game. Guys play for a variety of different reasons and that’s all cool. Some for money, some for fame, some for the game and other things. If Mendy was having continued success and making tons of money and was beloved, would he be leaving the NFL at 26? Doubt it.

    The league has changed and the biggest issue with the league is not even the league but the media. The NFL will never but should really shut down the overblown and non-stop coverage of these athletes. Yes, the fans want it but its not good for the players. Some handle it better than others and Mendy is not one of them. Happy for him to be able to get out and do new things, lose respect when you have to criticize the one that gave you an opportunity to do it.

  • Alexander Sebastian Heath

    None taken, um… I don’t think and am pretty sure they (GMs and scouts) would look into questions of personalities or happiness, they don’t give a jack about it but yes, thetorically Steelers GM should have questioned his work-ethnics (despite a well-written article, I still have my questions about his work-ethnics) which actually was a factor during his tendure with the Steelers.

    You actually arised a good point, still I don’t think it can be detected throughout the process of interviewing. MANY things can happen in years.Ihave a feeling Mendenhall probably have thought and felt the same for a while now, which make the retirement look easier.

    Perhaps his agent advised him, keep that mind he wouldn’t be making the decision alone. There’s accountant, lawyer, friends, family, and peers that can alter a decision.

  • Mark

    I respect him for his decision to move on from football and I wish the best for him. Maybe he saw how his football career would end up – being signed to 1-year deals and bouncing from team to team and city to city for the next 4-5 years.

  • srdan

    double negatives in your moronic negative comment.

  • srdan

    I was first row in the endzone where he ran in. Awesome!

  • srdan

    definetly agree. Even the average person has no privacy in our society. “Celebrities” have it way worse. They can’t even have a pimple without a picture being posted on 3 social mediums.

  • Roberto Vaquero Bazán

    I do believe that he is a renegade, his Bin Laden comments, and the way he conducted himself, not showing up in The Steelers facility while injured in his rockie season, not showing up while inactive in a game, and he was inactive because of his fumblitis, and now he is retiring because the game it is different?, different than What?, just because its not bouncing his way he is entitled to make those comments picturing a degradated game? If you don’t have the pasion its OK, to walk away from the game its OK, but at least leave it gracefully, because you are the one without motivation, so this is on you, the game doesn’t owe you nothing, so the best of luck for you, but keep your mouth shut!

  • treeher

    Not certain, but I seem to remember some questions about him coming out of school, whether it was attitude or commitment, whatever. Does anyone remember this?

  • westcoasteeler

    People don’t want to hear what mendenhall has to say cause they don’t really want to know the details. They just want our guys to be uber loyal and to produce on the field.
    I have to say. Clay Mathews full credit for knocking the ball out of Mendys arm in SB XLV. Just sayin…

  • Roberto Vaquero Bazán

    I couldn’t agree more, the refrigerator comment was just great!

  • Axe Skot

    First of all, I have always been very surprised about fans’ inability to seperate the player from the human being. I never loved Mendenhall as a player, but as a fan I always supported him and wanted him to do well, because that was best for the team. I can remember a friend actually laughing and feeling good about a fumble because it was proof to him “see, the guy’s a bum, a fumbler.” Crazy. On the other hand, fans often try to make a good player into a good person even if they have no information one way or another. I guess I can understand that to a degree, it just has always occurred to me that it is about entertainment, and some players are better at giving the camera what the fans want than others. To me, I left the person out of it (except in obvious extreme cases, axe murderers,etc.), while acknowledging that, sure, it’s nice if our tight end or safety are really nice guys. But before he left, my favorite player on the team, James Harrison, was probably not so nice. I think this is sort of what Mendenhall was getting at, however naively. Football is a team sport, let’s keep it on the field. What I am left wondering about, however, is the double standard implicit within the Huff Post article. He opens with his desire to have just disappeared without anyone knowing what happened to him. He also talks about his desire to pursue a life of writing. This is the only problem I have in that he seems now to be rather disingenuous. Sure is nice to have the fame after all to transition into your new pursuit, isn’t it? A lot of writers would love that much exposure. Did Huff Post approach you about these articles? By the look of the comments at the bottom of the article, it looks like you have people waiting to read what you might write. I wonder what you’ll write about?

  • CrazyTerry

    Pete Carrol has made some “interesting” comments about 9-11.. So Mendy is hardly alone in coming up with weird perspectives. I do fault him for not showing up to get “mental” reps by being around the team when he was injured his rookie year. He is no Robert Smith as far retirement since Robert Smith still had a viable career ahead of him and he became a doctor. Mendenhall seems a little more of the Ricky Williams mode though Ricky Williams was more of a spriritual and pot seeker and probably a gentler guy even if he had higher ceiling than Mendenhall on the football field.

    I don’t dislike Mendenhall. But we have a guy on the team who has been aggressive on the field and more offbeat off of it in Troy Polamalu. So Mendenhall is not exactly unique and if he really liked football, he could have made it work.

  • HiVul

    The NFL isn’t perfect and if no one ever criticized it, it would never change. Benefiting from something doesn’t preclude you from critical analysis.

  • j m

    This is so absurd.
    Irrespective of whether our culture needs a “wake up call” regarding
    sports, Mendenhall might be the least qualified person to place that call.

    Let’s review. Like 80% of first rounders coming out of college, he entered the league with a sense of entitlement due to fawning grade school coaches; fawning high school coaches; and fawning fellow students at both high school and college. Like most people flattered beyond reason, Mendy overestimated his talents in other areas. So when he uttered an insanely stupid remark about Bin Liden, and when for once in his life people don’t praise his mediocrity, he didn’t know how to handle it. Indignant that anyone would question him, he just got angry and was utterly unable to defend his “bold” statement. And this guy thinks he”s a “writer”? Please.

    More evidence of his boldness was being benched by a player-friendly coach (Tomlin) for not practicing like a professional. Then, this “Renaissance man” didn’t have the common decency to show for a game (for which he was highly paid) to support his teammates as they risked injury while he sat injured on his couch.

    Now that that market won’t pay him first rounders’ money, he “boldly” leaves the game.

    What a pseudo-intellectual fraud.

    By the way Mendy, it should read, “This is a very different model of football FROM (not “than”) the model I grew up with.” But good luck with that writing career. After all, just like everybody at your grade school and high school told you, “There’s nothing you can’t do, Rashard!”

  • 4-12

    Your a waste of sperm

  • Matthew Marczi

    I don’t agree with him, but he is entitled to his opinion.

  • dkoy85

    Sorry, shouldn’t have thrown you guys into this.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I would recommend reading Mendenhall’s full article if you have not. It was difficult for me to try to fully convey all of what it contained in my article without making it too long, so I had to leave out some important points.

  • Matthew Anderson

    <—-just told my boss that for political, sociological, and other profound reasons I have lost passion for what I do and I am officially resigning. He then told me he would stop paying me. I immediately asked for my job back.

    Best of luck Mendenhall. Must be nice. Hope people keep reading your musings.

  • j m

    Think anyone will pay to read those musings? Me neither.

  • Ellwood Davis

    Rashard Mendenhall is an intellectual, who happens to have played football. He is very intelligent, well spoken, and has his own opinions that don’t require vetting by the general public. Listening to him speak, you could see that football was not who he was, but what he was doing at that time.

    He would be a very interesting conversation in quite a few topics of discussion, and I applaud him for speaking out about the culture of the NFL, and having the strength to speak his mind regarding an event in which he found moral failure.

    I am excited to see what Rashard Mendenhall, the man, will accomplish as he pursues his life’s work. Best wishes, and thanks for the memories…..as far as I’m concerned, they are all good!

  • Rob

    Too bad the steelers didn’t realize how uncommitted he was to the game when they drafted him. He wasn’t so put off by the nfl that he didn’t cash he paychecks. Wish he could take his fumble during that packers Super Bowl with him.

  • DoctorNoah

    Love his words. His stance on bin Laden was wholly appropriate, spoken like a pacifist and one with profound respect for human life, and was taken out of context by the media. Must have been very painful for him.

    I hope he amounts to something good.

  • Davide

    What makes something special is not just what you have to gain, but what you feel there is to lose.

    [Andre Agassi]

  • Roberto Vaquero Bazán

    Thanks, I do appreciate your recomandation, I’ll do that

  • Brendon Glad

    There’s no certainty he would have had an NFL job next year anyway…but if he wants to take a few shots at the NFL and its fans on his way out, that’s fine with me. But I’ll chuckle if he shows up as an NFL analyst or sports writer somewhere….then his article will become pretty empty. And if I may predict, I think that’s exactly what I expect to see within the next 5 years after he takes a stab at something else for awhile. But it’s no big deal either way. I hope the best for him.

  • Tom

    I don’t particularly agree that his announcement is a wake up call about sports culture.
    I smell something more along the lines of Ricky Williams.
    I don’t necessarily take everything he says at face value either.
    Would he done the same if he had ran for 1200 yards last year and was in line for a nice new contract? Me thinks not. His maximum earning potential had pretty much expired.

    Obviously, football is not his first love. I don’t criticize him for what he sets as priorities in his life. He is hardly the first to “work a job” that he did not love. Usually a decision made due to money.

    He should have enough money to be comfortable for life. Good for him.
    Now he can comfortably do what he loves…..which probably will be a whole lot less lucrative.

  • pittsburghjoe

    Yeah..Huffington Post. That’s where I get my news.

  • Virdin Barzey

    Don’t confuse criticism that’s done to make someone or something better versus criticisms done to tear down or make yourself look better. There is a big difference.




    Sometimes people who are ostensibly engaged in deep thought are actually just having a breakdown of some sort.

  • HiVul

    That’s an interesting point, but I do think you’d have to read a lot between the lines or make quite a few assumptions about someone’s character to decide which is which when you read someone’s criticisms. With Mendy you could interpret it either way

  • patrick Mayfield

    He was had at something of a bargain – supposed to be a top 15 player but we got him at 23.

  • patrick Mayfield

    well said. He sure does think a lot. I personally don’t think he’s very bright but he sure keeps at it.