My response when my students first told the news was just to shake my head ruefully.
Of course he was.
"Who should introduce you tonight?"— Ken Tremendous (@KenTremendous) April 18, 2016
"Well...my entire campaign is based on empty bluster and misplaced machismo..."
Aside from being a one-day story (or even just a sidebar to the carnival show that is the 2016 election), it got me thinking.
What enterprising Buffalo reporter would ask Rex the following question at his next press conference:
"Rex, do you support Donald Trump's plan to ban all Muslims from entering the country?"
Or this one: "Rex, do you support Donald Trump's view that Mexican immigrants are criminals and rapists and dangerous to America?"
This is similar to Deadspin's offer a few months ago for any Boston-area reporter to ask Tom Brady about his support for Trump's more radical ideas. Deadspin, to their credit, sent questions like this to the Bills and has received no comment.
Is it fair to ask Rex Ryan about these issues? After all, he's just a football coach, right? It's sports. Who cares? As an experiment, I took to social media:
So ... is it now fair to ask Rex Ryan if he supports the wall to keep Mexicans out? Or banning all Muslims?— Brian Moritz (@bpmoritz) April 19, 2016
They're small samples, of course, and probably not representative of anything. But it's interesting to see, at least in my small poll, support for asking the question.
Look, I get the counter arguments. I get the idea that Rex Ryan is a football coach (and not a very successful one), and so who cares about his political opinion. I get the idea that sports is a kind of safe zone for people, that we tune in to sports to escape the BS in the world around us. I can hear people wondering if we should start asking all athletes and coaches for their political stances. I get all of that.
But a couple points:
- Rex Ryan put himself into this spotlight. He chose to introduce the most polarizing presidential candidate in front of 10,000-plus people at a hockey arena the night before a presidential primary. This isn't a case of reporters digging into personal beliefs. Rex chose to do this. One of my first posts on this site addressed this through the idea of a vortex public figure. If you voluntarily put yourself into a public debate, then the public has a right to ask questions of you about that issue.
If a player or coach wants to keep their political beliefs personal, that's fine. Everyone has that right. But when you openly put a hat in your locker in front of the media, or when you address a hockey arena during a political rally, you forfeit some of that right.
- There's a specificity to this candidate that makes this question worth asking. This is not asking Rex what he thinks about Bernie Sanders' plan to break up the banks. This is asking about pretty blatant racist policies against Hispanics (who make up 8.7 percent of the NFL fan base) and Muslims (who make up at least three percent of all NFL players). Players and fans deserve to know how much a coach of one of the 32 NFL teams supports these policies that discriminate against a segment of his population.
- There's the idea that sports as a safe zone. "I don't want to hear about politics, I just want to watch football." It's a seductive idea. But I think it's a flawed one. You can't separate sports from our greater culture because it is entwined with it. To try to do so is to live with blinders on.
Earlier this month, we celebrated Jackie Robinson Day. To celebrate that achievement while simultaneously saying we shouldn't talk about the politics of our athletes and coaches is intellectually dishonest. To complain that athletes won't take political stances like the greats did in the past while simultaneously saying sports should be a safe zone is intellectually dishonest.
Why are we afraid of having grown up conversations in sports? Why don't we want to ask questions and have these conversations?
Look, I can abhor Rex Ryan's politics and still cheer for his team and hope that he can put together a decent defense this year. The two things are not mutually exclusive. You can disagree with a person politically (or morally) and still root for the team they play on to do well. More than one thing can be true. We can be grown ups here.
Rex Ryan doesn't have to defend appearing at a Donald Trump rally. He doesn't have to talk about politics if he doesn't want to. He has the right to no-comment any question about it.
But we should be asking the questions. No harm ever came from asking a question.