On Wednesday, SB Nation published a longform piece on Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Eastern Michigan University linebacker who was recently sentenced to 263 years for the rape and assault of multiple black women, crimes he committed while on duty as a cop in Oklahoma City. Written by Jeff Arnold, the piece clocked in at nearly 12,000 words and was, in short, a too-long musing on how a “good” guy turns “bad.” It had a lot of filler about how hard Holtzclaw worked at football, how nice he was in high school and college, and how no one expected him to be charged or convicted. The point perhaps was to humanize Holtzclaw; it read instead like it wanted to excuse him.
The criticism of the piece on social media was immediate. Within hours of it going up, SB Nation pulled it down, the link going to a page that now reads, “404. Sorry, sports fans.” Spencer Hall, the site’s Editorial Director, soon followed that up with an apology that reads in part, “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.” Slate has the highlights of the worst parts of the piece; the cached version is also still live. This is particularly jarring because SB Nation is a partner in the “It’s On Us” campaign that encourages everyone to become a part of the solution in ending sexual violence.
Why was the piece, as Hall puts it, “a complete failure”? Hall doesn’t say much but promises that SB Nation will review their editing “processes in light of this failure” and they will do so publicly. At Deadspin, Barry Petchesky has a rundown of the problems in the article, including that we (journalists, editors, readers) seem too easily to believe that because a story is long in form, it is high in quality. Kara Brown, writing at Jezebel, says the failure is in the framing of Holtzclaw as a man who fell from grace, which completely ignores that “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.”
It’s also a failure because it does the worst of what sports writing does when it tries to tackle issues of violence against women, including domestic and/or sexual violence: it centers the athlete and almost completely ignores the victims. In the nearly 12,000 words, I count just under 500 were about the thirteen (13!) women who came forward and testified against Holtzclaw (you can read their stories in their words at BuzzFeed). In telling the story of a man known almost exclusively because he is a convicted rapist, Arnold spent 4% of the many words he was allotted on the people who were harmed by Holtzclaw.
Sports writers are trained to write about athletes, to tell stories about their hard work in practice and what results on the field, and to interview fellow players to get a well-rounded picture of their teammate. Arnold was very good at doing that about Holtzclaw in particular. At the very end of the piece, after the last line, SB Nation had a short author bio for Arnold. Included in it was the fact that Arnold is “an award-winning, veteran journalist who covered Daniel Holtzclaw’s entire Eastern Michigan football career for The Ann Arbor News.” In the SB Nation article, Arnold writes thousands of words about Holtzclaw in high school and college. Holtzclaw, Arnold says, was “as straight-laced as the come,” “naturally quiet and reserved,” “a team leader,” “popular with young women,” “was never one to call attention to himself and tout his own abilities,” and, yes, “someone who had reputation of taking responsibility for his actions.” We know from Arnold that Holtzclaw worked hard in the weight room, became a better linebacker in college than anyone expected, and almost had a shot at the NFL.
The excuse for why we need all these irrelevant character descriptions of a man convicted of raping multiple women is that Arnold frames the charges and conviction of Holtzclaw as shocking based on what people thought they knew about Holtzclaw earlier in his life. Arnold is trying to determine “how Holtzclaw could have possibly become the monster he was publicly portrayed to be.” He does this by interviewing multiple of Holtzclaw’s former teammates, the private investigator who helped Holtzclaw’s defense attorney, and Holtzclaw’s father (all men). Arnold proposes a host of reasons for how Holtzclaw became a “monster.” The PI told Arnold Holtzclaw was “swept up in the furor over the treatment of black Americans by police officers in other places” and people were ready to punish a police officer. Arnold also suggests that it could have been a sexual disorder “coupled with the disappointment of a football career end prematurely” and possibly with “the addition of an extra dose of aggression fueled by steroids.” Also, Arnold implies it could be that Holtzclaw has CTE in his brain that makes him more violent now. As it was written, Arnold assumes there has to be some explanation for how Holtzclaw became “a completely different person” other than Holtzclaw was just a rapist, that men just rape.
The thing about assigning a story about sexual assault to a sports writer who is good at writing about athletes is that you get 12,000 words about an athlete without any understanding on his part about how society talks about sexual assault, how journalists cover it, anything about it at all. Arnold’s starting point is as a man who watched Holtzclaw’s entire college career, who sees Holtzclaw as an athlete first, and who imagines Holtzclaw’s story as a tragic arc. The victimized women are simply an anomaly to be explained away in the otherwise successful life of a nice guy who happened to become a convicted rapist.
Yet, for plenty of sexual assault survivors, the fact that everyone in their community and friend group believed that the man who raped them was a “good guy” who “would never do such a thing” kept them quiet, made them fearful of coming forward, made them doubt what happened to them, etc. Arnold only interviews men for this piece, save for a lone woman. Grace Franklin, the co-founder of OKC Artists for Justice, and someone who is part of “an advocacy group that worked with several of Holtzclaw’s victims” mainly is quoted in regards to the neighborhood where Holtzclaw committed his crimes, never once about the women themselves. The men in Holtzclaw’s life simply can’t believe what these women have said Holtzclaw did, in large part because they themselves never saw Holtzclaw exhibit the kind of behavior that they think would have tipped them off to the fact that he would serially rape women. What are the signs exactly that would have given Holtzclaw away? What is it that men think they will see in another man that will make them understand this potential or reality about their friend/their son/their teammate? Why is the story about what those men missed rather than what this man has done and to whom he did it?
As feminist writer Melissa McEwan has said about people’s need to see rapists as bad people who wear their evil intentions on their sleeve: “Rapists are not literal monsters. They are human beings, and often deceptively charming ones at that. They can be in one moment cruel, and the next kind, even with their victims.” In all of his speculating, Arnold failed to write that perhaps one of the things Holtzclaw was good at was making the people around him believe he was the kind of guy who would never do such a thing.
There is one last thing that must be said about this story: sports media is a lot of men, most of them white (SB Nation’s masthead and “web talent” holds true to this generalization, but it’s hard to find any sports outlet that does not look like this). Also, more than almost any other media, sports media disproportionately has men writing about sexual assault and as the sources in their stories about it. Yet so often this is the group leading the national conversation around this topic. It’s not that men cannot or should not write on this topic; certainly men have as much capacity as women to imagine a well-rounded story, to seek out female voices and experts, to recognize that both perpetrators and survivors will always be reading whatever they write, and to remember that the stakes are very high whenever you write on this topic in a society that victim blames and minimizes sexual violence. But, as the Women Media Center recently found when looking at how men and women report on sexual assault, “Women journalists interviewed alleged victims more often than male journalists, and a higher proportion of women journalists wrote about the impact of the alleged attack on alleged victims.” Women bring a different set of cultural experiences to the table, they ask different questions, and they seek out voices often left out. We need more of that or we will end up with more of this.
The ultimate failure of the SB Nation piece is that the author and every editor who signed off on it forgot or did not care that there would be so many survivors of sexual violence who would read this piece and see the questioning of a rapist’s conviction and a lifting up of his overall character. Even more important, they forgot or did not care that there are survivors of Holtzclaw’s violence in particular who live in this world, too. As SB Nation reviews all of their processes to determine how this piece made it to publication, they need to seriously reckon with that. For every other sports media outlet, I hope you are taking notes, too. It wasn’t you this time but there’s no reason to think it won’t be you next.