donald trump
Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

It doesn’t surprise me that Donald Trump’s style has a lot of appeal to sports coaches like Mike Ditka, Bobby Knight and the Buffalo Bill’s Rex Ryan. Sports coaches are judged in a very binary way that comes down to win/loss records, victory and defeat. And, football, in particular, is a game that rewards physicality (at most positions) over understanding. That’s not to say that NFL scouts don’t care about intelligence or character, but they’re more impressed by how much you can bench press or how fast you can run the 40-yard dash.

One sign that Rex Ryan might be a Trump supporter came from his willingness to give Offensive Guard Richie Incognito a job. Incognito was suspended indefinitely by the Miami Dolphins in November 2013, following revelations that he bullied (in particular) a black teammate and Stanford University graduate named Jonathan Martin. In the end, the suspension lasted three months and cost Incognito two gameday checks.

As the NFL goes, the Incognito scandal was a fairly big deal. There was a big investigation and eventually a report was issued. The stuff Incognito and some of his friends did to Martin and to a Japanese trainer on the team are so horrifying that I can’t even refer to most of them with any specificity. In general terms, they threatened to rape both Martin and his sister. In addition to that (and many other things), Incognito wasn’t shy about sharing his distaste for black people. For example, here are two text message exchanges he had with a white teammate:

Player B: Especially if u plan living in Arizona in the future, that’s exactly what you want
Incognito: Yea. For picking off zombies 32
Player B: Lol isn’t that why we own any weapons!?
Incognito: That and black people
Player B: Mmm def all black ppl

Four days later, Incognito and Player B discussed rifle scopes in text messages.

Player B: Yes. That’s a solid optic made specifically for a .308
battle rifle
Incognito: Perfect for shooting black people
Player B: Lol exactly
Player B: Or Jeff Ireland

After the Dolphins reinstated Incognito, they cut him for obvious reasons. But Rex Ryan was willing to overlook Incognito’s behavior and tolerate the fallout that would inevitably result in a mostly black locker room from inviting an extreme racist onto the team.

Still, it seems that some black Bills players were shocked when their coach Rex Ryan made an appearance with Donald Trump:

A Bills player said when he learned Ryan had spoken at Trump’s rally, he simply couldn’t believe it. “Rex is such an open-minded guy, a really good person,” said the player, who asked not to be identified, fearing repercussions from the Bills. “But the fact he could back someone as closed-minded as Trump genuinely shocked me.”

The player, who is black, emphasized that teammates’ frustration with their coach’s public endorsement was not universal. But in private discussions, he said, “Some of the African-American players on the team weren’t happy about Rex doing that.”

Indeed, said another black player on the Bills who requested anonymity to speak freely about tensions swirling with a combination of protests led by Colin Kaepernick and a combustible candidate: “I see Trump as someone who is hostile to people of color, and the fact that Rex supports him made me look at him completely differently, and not in a positive way.”

As for Incognito, he’s predictably in Trump’s camp, and his reasons are about as nuanced as you’d expect:

“I think that he can help this nation get back to a world superpower,” Incognito told B/R Mag. “Where I think he could help is putting us first again and having that—it’s my mentality, too—having that tough attitude where you put America first and everyone’s thinking we’re the greatest nation in the world. Don’t mess with America. That toughness is where I identify with him.”

Incognito doesn’t care what his black teammates think of him, but presumably Rex Ryan does. Yet, he’s oblivious to how his support of Trump is widely seen as an endorsement of racism.

Black players who might otherwise back a more conservative candidate said they have abandoned Trump because they view him as anti-black. Multiple players cited Trump’s embrace of so-called birtherism—the lie that President Obama isn’t a natural-born citizen—as one of several reasons they dislike Trump.

“A lot of black players believe saying the first black president isn’t really American is racist as f–k,” one player told B/R Mag.

It was entirely predictable that friendships would end over white players picking Trump despite it being obvious how their black teammates would feel about it. An example from the article begins with a white and black player and their spouses becoming friends. They ate at each other’s houses. The players sat together in meetings. But when the white player expressed support for Trump, the dinner invitations dried up, his calls were not returned, and eventually the black player told him “I can’t be friends with anyone who would vote for Donald Trump. I’m sorry.”

An informal poll from Bleacher Report found that 20 of 22 black NFL players plan to vote for Hillary Clinton and only two plan to vote for Donald Trump, while all 21 white NFL players surveyed plan to vote for Trump. The poll is unscientific and has a huge sampling error, but it shows the degree of disconnect that’s developed among black and white players in the NFL.

Like most millionaires (the NFL minimum salary is $420,000, the average salary is $1.9 million), pro football players are tax-averse, and this helps explain the conservative tilt of the league, even among black players. Yet, for most of the black players, Trump is a transparent racist and anyone who would consider voting for him is clearly okay with that. They may not like the sound of Hillary Clinton saying that millionaires need to give up more of their pay, but Trump’s racial attitudes are a much bigger concern.

The white players understand this at least to the degree that most of them know better than to be open about their support for Trump, but they don’t seem to be persuaded by their black colleagues’ objections. What’s remarkable about this is that NFL locker rooms are very integrated places, so this isn’t a matter of two populations living in isolation from each other. It’s been well-documented that the more segregated and white a locality is, the stronger Trump’s support will be. Whites living in mixed neighborhoods of Philadelphia, for example, have completely different attitudes about this election than whites living in mostly white rural and Appalachian parts of Pennsylvania. Yet, proximity doesn’t seem to have increased the racial sensitivity of white players and coaches.

Maybe that has something to do with the culture of football. Maybe the fact that the NFL is dominated by southerners is a factor. I don’t really know.

We shouldn’t discount that the lack of understanding goes the other way, too. Most of the white players and coaches would protest that their support of Trump does not mean that they’re okay with racism and their support for him is based on other considerations like making America great again (whatever that might mean to them). Some of them are no doubt genuinely blind to the racism that animates Trump’s campaign. Others have problems with Hillary Clinton that they weight even more heavily than the problems they have with Trump. It many cases, it’s probably overly uncharitable to assume that these Trump supporters are voting for him because they’re attracted to or willing to overlook his racism.

Yet, it’s hard to understand how they could fail to get how their support for Trump is perceived and why it might cost them a friendship or make some black athletes not want to play with or for them.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at