• Rex Ryan (or his brother Rob) would only be arrested if police find that he committed a crime—in this case, a simple assault. But what happens if this case goes further? And what kind of impact could this have on their careers?
By Michael McCann
June 08, 2017

Could former New York Jets and Buffalo Bills head coach Rex Ryan face criminal charges over a bar fight?

Ryan, along with his fraternal twin brother and fellow former NFL coach Rob Ryan, were in Nashville last weekend for the Stanley Cup finals. On Sunday, the two dined with Rob Ryan’s son Matt, an offensive lineman at Clemson University, at the downtown Margaritaville Restaurant. They were seated at a table positioned next to a busy street and with the window open. This setting made the brothers, who many sports fans would instantly recognize, visible to people walking by and thus also easy to photograph and record. Various photographs and videos of them in the restaurant are available online. The imagery shows the Ryans having ordered what appear to be margaritas and, while interacting with other restaurant patrons, seeming quite happy.

At some point, however, the Ryan brothers got into an argument with other individuals in the restaurant, and the argument escalated into a brief physical confrontation. A person walking by recorded a 10-second portion of the incident, and the video shows Rob Ryan appear to grab or place his left hand on the neck of another man, who was wearing a blue Nike shirt:

No arrests were made, but the man in the blue Nike shirt has filed a misdemeanor assault complaint with the Nashville Police Department. Thirty-year-old Matthew Havel of Pueblo, Colorado, says that he was seated with the Ryans for over an hour when, without warning or provocation, Rex Ryan grabbed him by the neck, leading to a scuffle with the two Ryan brothers and others nearby. Havel has described his dinner table conversation with the Ryans as positive. He does not recall saying anything that would have rationally triggered a violent response. It remains to be seen if Havel’s account is entirely accurate. But even if Havel heckled or openly mocked the Ryan brothers, Rex and Rob had no legal right to make physical contact with Havel unless it was in self-defense.

Impact of the assault complaint

The filing of an assault complaint does not mean that either Ryan brother will be arrested. A complaint is what it sounds like—an accusation that another person broke the law. A complaint allows an alleged victim to offer his or her account to police about what happened and which witnesses were present.

An alleged victim’s complaint serves as one of many sources for police to investigate a potential crime. An investigation also involves interviews by police with persons who were present—including the Ryans, Havel, other patrons and restaurant workers. Further, an investigation typically entails police review of any videos—including the one shown above but also other possible videos, such as those from the restaurant’s security system. Police also try to review other electronic evidence, such as texts or emails made available by witnesses and which reveal what they observed.

An arrest warrant would only be issued if there is probable cause that either Ryan committed a crime. The most relevant potential crime stemming from this incident would be simple assault. In Tennessee, assault refers to causing bodily injury or threatening another person with immediate bodily harm. Assault is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by up to 11 months and 29 days in jail and a fine of up to $2,500. Keep in mind the maximum punishment is seldom imposed, particularly when the defendant lacks a criminal record. Outside of a college bar fight where Rex says he was briefly jailed after breaking Rob’s nose as well as relatively insignificant car related matters, neither brother appears to have any kind of criminal record.

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It also doesn’t appear that anyone in the Margaritaville Restaurant incident suffered bodily injury, perhaps other than small bruises and momentary pain. That said, threats of immediate bodily harm might have been made. For instance, if either Ryan threatened Havel with immediate bodily harm—such as by telling him he is about to get attacked while Rex or Rob aggressively charged towards him—an arrest warrant could be issued.

In their defense, the Ryan brothers would likely argue that they made no such threats. They might also insist that they felt physically threatened and that all of their conduct should be viewed under the umbrella of self-defense.

If either Ryan is charged with a crime, a plea deal could possibly be worked out where the former coach doesn’t serve any jail time in exchange for admitting some degree of fault. In such a deal, Rex or Rob might be ordered to pay a fine, attend anger management courses and accept other probationary terms.

Potential civil litigation

While the Margaritaville Restaurant incident is unlikely to trigger an extensive application of criminal law, it could lead to civil litigation. There is video evidence of Rob Ryan making physical contact with Havel’s neck. Havel also contends that Rex Ryan made menacing contact with him. Havel might contend that he was civilly battered—suffered intentional, non-consensual and injurious physical contact—and was intentionally inflicted with emotional distress, which refers generally to having suffered from the outrageous conduct of another who sought to cause emotional turmoil.

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An obvious challenge for Havel in a civil lawsuit would be whether he can establish that he suffered injury. If not injured in any kind of meaningful way, Havel’s damages would likely be modest. He could attempt to argue that he suffered substantial emotional injury, though he would need proof of such injury. For instance, he might show that he underwent treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder and was prescribed accompanying medication. As of now, however, there is no indication that Havel has suffered any kind of injury other than being offended and aggravated.

Given the Ryan brothers’ resources, they may be able to reach a financial settlement with Havel that averts any litigation. A settlement would require Havel to relinquish possible claims he has against the Ryan brothers in exchange for some amount of money. If the Ryan brothers want this incident to “go away” quickly, they would be wise to work out a settlement with Havel and any other restaurant patron who might have a plausible claim against them.

Impact on the Ryan brothers’ careers in the NFL and with ESPN

At age 54, the Ryan brothers will likely be considered for future coaching jobs in the NFL. While Rex’s career NFL head coaching record of 61-66 is far from exemplary, his career playoff record is 4–2 and many of the Jets and Bills teams he coached arguably lacked the talent to compete with the New England Patriots in the AFC East. A former defensive line coach on the Super Bowl XXV-winning Baltimore Ravens, Rex is considered a talented mind in devising defensive schemes. While Rob’s coaching record is limited to NFL coordinator and position coaching positions, he is also a highly regarded defensive mind. Rob won two Super Bowl rings while coaching with the Patriots from 2000 to ’03. The bottom line is while both brothers are currently without NFL coaching positions both are employable in the NFL.

If the Margaritaville Restaurant incident occurred while NFL teams employed the Ryan brothers, they could face league and team discipline. The NFL Personal Conduct Policy applies not only to players, but also to coaches. Through their employment contracts, coaches are also vulnerable to punishment by their teams. Several coaches in recent years have been punished for off-field misconduct. For instance, in 2015, the Bills suspended one of Rex Ryan’s coaches, offensive line coach Aaron Kromer, for six games. The suspension followed Kromer’s arrest for battery, which centered on him allegedly punching a teenage boy. A year earlier, the Minnesota Vikings suspended special teams coach Mike Priefer for three games after he allegedly mde homophobic remarks.

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While not employed by an NFL team, Rex Ryan is gainfully employed. In April, ESPN hired him as an NFL color commentator. As discussed by SI media columnist Richard Deitsch, Ryan’s ESPN debut is expected to take place on the Sept. 11 Monday Night Football broadcast of a game between the San Diego Chargers and Denver Broncos. ESPN broadcaster Beth Mowins is expected to provide play-by-play in that game.

While Ryan’s employment contract with ESPN is private, it stands to reason that it contains customary language that would empower ESPN to suspend or even terminate Ryan’s contract for conduct unbecoming of an ESPN employee.

Will ESPN take action against Rex Ryan? At this point, it seems unlikely. As discussed above, Ryan has not been arrested. Even if eventually charged, Ryan would face a charge for a relatively minor offense that could likely be resolved out of our court. Ryan is also well positioned to reach a financial settlement with anyone who might have a legal claim against him stemming from the incident.

It is also worth noting that Ryan’s “unpolished” image might play to his favor in how ESPN evaluates the matter. Ryan’s unusual candor for an NFL coach and his penchant for swearing have generated controversies over the years. The NFL, for instance, has fined Ryan for public use of profanities during game broadcasts and for yelling obscenities at fans. Even when not punished by anyone, Ryan has a lengthy track record of unusual behavior—a record well captured by Extra Mustard’s “The 10 craziest Rex Ryan moments.” So given Ryan’s reputation, involvement in an injury-free bar fight might not change how the public views Ryan. To the extent ESPN reaches that conclusion, the network is less likely to take any action.

Michael McCann is SI’s legal analyst. He is also an attorney and a tenured law professor at the University of New Hampshire School of Law.

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