SB Nation Deletes Sympathetic Story Suggesting Daniel Holtzclaw Was Just Sad About Football


In the eyes of the law, ex-police officer Daniel Holtzclaw is guilty of six counts of sexual battery, three counts of lewd exhibition, four counts of forcible oral sodomy, four counts of rape in the first degree, and one count of rape in the second degree.

For his 13 victims—all of them black women, many of them poor—as well as the people who believe their stories, justice was served. For others, apparently, Holtzclaw’s total innocence remains a possibility. An article published today by SB Nation, and removed about five hours later, seems to suggest exactly this—and puts forth the theory that, if he did commit those crimes, the blame lies in his frustration from failing to be drafted by a professional football team.

Jeff Arnold’s piece, titled “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw,” makes slightly more sense when you read his author biography:

Jeff Arnold is an award-winning, veteran journalist who covered Daniel Holtzclaw’s entire Eastern Michigan football career for The Ann Arbor News. He now lives in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood, where he is a regular contributor to the New York Times, Associated Press and Chicago Sun-Times.

Emphasis mine.

Aside from the fact that Arnold had this specialized knowledge, it’s hard to understand why it’s relevant, why this story was written, why it was published, and what lessons we’re supposed to glean. Arnold does not examine the system that allowed Holtzclaw to continue raping black women under the protection of a police badge. He generally ignores the culture of victim-blaming that Holtzclaw’s defense exploited. And there were no attempts to understand the precarious racial undertones of the case, in which a man who is half-white, half-not (Daniel Holtzclaw’s mother is Japanese) targeted only black women. Nor do we get an even brief consideration of how our country’s blind reverence for almost any level of football can harm women.

Instead, Arnold frames the story of Holtzclaw’s life around his dreams of playing in the NFL. Holtzclaw’s football career is covered from his days in high school in Enid, Oklahoma, through college at Eastern Michigan University and his ultimate failure in joining the NFL that led him to becoming a police officer.

The story paints a picture of a hardworking, dedicated football player with a loving family and friends. Holtzclaw is continually described as a man who actively worked to stay out of trouble—as if it’s a shock when previously law-abiding men decide to rape women.

We learn that Daniel Holtzclaw’s father, of course, considers his son innocent and naively suggests that there couldn’t possibly be any racial element to his crimes because Daniel had black friends.

Eric Holtzclaw dismisses any suggestion that his son was prejudiced, noting his number of black friends and that as an Asian-American, his son grew up well aware of issues of cultural diversity.

For good measure, Arnold includes interviews from not one but two of Holtzclaw’s black friends who conveniently do not view in the case in racial terms and have a difficult time believing that their friend is guilty.

In excruciating detail, the story wades through Holtzclaw’s largely unimpressive college football career in an attempt to conceive this abrupt end to years of training and dreams of stardom as an impetus for the heinous crimes he committed.

If anything caused Holtzclaw to become unhinged, that may, in part, be what did. For the first time in his life, he had failed and the goal he had long sought was no longer available. For the first time, his strength and will had not been enough. Without an NFL dream to aspire to, perhaps he felt that his sacrifices had been for nothing. As a football player, he had believed he was in charge of his own destiny, now he was stripped of his power.

In addition to tarnished NFL dreams, Arnold suggests that steroid use, chronic trauma encephalopathy—the brain disease now being tied to many NFL players after years of head trauma—and a sexual disorder maybe explain why Holtzclaw raped and sexually assaulted 13 black women.

Dr. Fred Berlin, the director of the Sexual Behaviors Consultation Unit at Johns Hopkins University, is quoted in the piece and from what I can tell, was not involved in the trial and has never personally evaluated Holtzclaw.

If that was true, Berlin surmised, it may be possible that some type of disorder may have been in play during the six-month period when the crimes took place in 2013 and 2014 when, without the potential of an NFL career to suppress his behavior, Holtzclaw seemingly became a completely different person. Holtzclaw’s father disagrees, questioning how it would be possible for his son to “turn it on and off” and then go home to a girlfriend once his daily shift had ended. Berlin said, however, that in many cases, perpetrators have the ability to mask abnormal behavior.

The forgiving tone of the story is supported by quotes from those who knew Holtzclaw during high school and college. They are, of course, shocked by the news about their friend and struggle to understand what went wrong. This is wholly unsurprising.

What is curious, however, is that there is little attempt to present the views of any of Holtzclaw’s victims or from anyone who doesn’t maintain troubling levels of doubt about his guilt.

Looking back, those who were routinely around Holtzclaw away from the football field recall nothing that paints Holtzclaw as anything but just another college student and certainly not as the sexual predator he would later be convicted of becoming.

The story has many lows, and ends on a final one: Arnold’s ending takes an absurdly merciful tone to cap off the story of a man who has not shown himself as deserving of any mercy.

Pending an improbable successful appeal, everything he had worked for was now gone, likely never to be recovered, ever again. Recovery, if there is any, appears to be something deserved only by the victims of a man whose belief in his innocence will apparently be, like the way he once pursued his dream of playing in the NFL, unrelenting, despite all evidence to the contrary.

We don’t need any more words about Daniel Holtzclaw’s life. This unexceptional man does not need to be examined from a one-sided angle that subtly looks to displace blame for the crimes he committed. Holtzclaw’s sad life is not some sort of parable on the fragility of the human spirit when dreams are not reached. This was not a fall from grace.

This was a man who, under the cloak of protecting and serving his community, decided to rape and sexually assault 13 black women and preyed upon the notion that his victims would remain silent or ignored. Unless your story deals in those facts honestly and unflinchingly, your story about Daniel Holtzclaw does not need to be told.

I guess that’s why SB Nation deleted it. About five hours after it was published, on Wednesday night, editorial director Spencer Hall removed Arnold’s story and posted this note to the site:

Earlier today, SB Nation posted a story called “Who is Daniel Holtzclaw?” that attempted to find out the backstory of convicted serial rapist Daniel Holtzclaw. The story focused on his football background in particular.
The publication of this story represents a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation. There were objections by senior editorial staff that went unheeded. It was tone-deaf, insensitive to the victims of sexual assault and rape, and wrongheaded in approach and execution. There is no qualification: it was a complete failure.
In light of that failure, we’ve taken the story down. I take full responsibility for this as editorial director. It was not up to our standards as a website. It was not up to our standards as a part of Vox Media. It is not reflective of our ideals, or who we want to be as an organization in the future.
We’re reviewing all of our processes in light of this failure. There are a lot of them, and I promise to talk in detail about them publicly while we work through all of them.
Spencer Hall

Contact the author at [email protected] .

Image via AP

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