The XX Factor

Here Are the Worst Parts of SB Nation’s Deleted Story Lionizing a Convicted Rapist

A photograph of future convicted rapist Daniel Holtzclaw from his 2009 tryout for the Detroit Lions. 

NFL Photos

Vox Media’s sports website, SB Nation, outraged readers on Wednesday by publishing a nearly 12,000-word profile of Daniel Holtzclaw. Holtzclaw, you may recall, is the former Oklahoma City police officer who was recently sentenced to 263 years in prison for raping and sexually assaulting several poor, black women while on duty. (Holtzclaw’s father is white and his mother is Japanese.) Before entering the police force, Holtzclaw was also a star linebacker for Eastern Michigan University from 2005 to 2009; the SB Nation piece focuses on his football career and failed attempt to get drafted by the NFL.

It’s certainly conceivable that someone could have written a thoughtful profile of Holtzclaw that included digging into his college football career—but that is not what writer Jeff Arnold has done. Rather, Arnold has written the most sympathetic portrait of a convicted rapist imaginable. Arnold parrots Holtzclaw’s defense lawyers’ talking points and, at the same time, theorizes that maybe Holtzclaw’s failed football career, or even undiagnosed chronic traumatic encephalopathy, could explain his crimes. He almost exclusively quotes Holtzclaw’s friends, family, and supporters. (As Deadspin put it, “Basically, this is the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors—‘He always seemed like such a nice kid’—over and over again for 12,000 words.”)

In the wake of public outcry about the biased and insensitive article, SB Nation pulled the story from its site and released a statement from editorial director Spencer Hall, who writes,

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.

You can still read the cached page of Arnold’s profile, although you probably don’t want to—its length is almost as insulting to readers as its content. Here are a few of the most offensive passages from this journalistic fiasco.

Holtzclaw was a victim of the Black Lives Matter movement, according to Brian Bates, who believes Holtzclaw is guilty only of “a series of critical procedural errors”:

In Bates’ view, Holtzclaw was swept up in the furor over treatment of black Americans by police officers in other places, turmoil that had already resulted the #BlackLivesMatter movement and sparked riots in places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, a brewing perfect storm that was only getting worse.

“The emotions were already there and all (the public) needed was a poster child and Daniel came along at the absolute worst time for Daniel,” Bates said. “And he was done.”

Holtzclaw is selfless:

Holtzclaw chose to go to Eastern Michigan as a means to not only play football and pursue his dream of playing in the NFL, but to keep his parents from having to foot the bill for his college education. To act so unselfishly, say those who know him best, was just who Holtzclaw was.

The ladies loved Holtzclaw:

Holtzclaw’s physical condition, athletic prowess and exotic good looks due to his Japanese heritage made him popular with young women, but for most of his time in Ypsilanti, Holtzclaw maintained a serious dating relationship with a fellow Eastern Michigan student.

Holtzclaw and his girlfriend, like others their age, could often be found together at parties, where friends said they were a typical young couple in love. Teammates found nothing unique about the relationship. 

Holtzclaw was “someone who had reputation of taking responsibility for his actions”:

Holtzclaw, who became one of the leaders of the Eagles’ defense by his senior year, never shied away from owning up to mistakes, which Selman—Holtzclaw’s fellow linebacker—said the manner in which Holtzclaw was investigated and later charged and convicted all the more disturbing.

That trait may have been due to his upbringing, an environment where he had been taught to respect the police and other authority figures. But more likely, one of his former teammates suggested, is that Holtzclaw studiously avoided off-the-field issues not only for moral reasons, but because of his intense desire to play in the NFL.

Holtzclaw was deeply scarred by the fact that he didn’t make it into the NFL:

His football career ended at Eastern Michigan, in Ypsilanti. Less than one year after starring in the MAC, he was a former college football player, accent on “former.”

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.

Maybe Holtzclaw raped poor black women because he felt unwelcome in their communities:

According to some, drug use and prostitution are part of everyday life on the east side, where residents often look away from criminal activity and look on the police, not with respect, but with suspicion. … Holtzclaw was living and working in a world far away from anything he had ever known before, a dangerous assignment that regularly brought him in contact with people and lifestyles with which he had little prior experience. It was a place, he would soon find out, where the police were not always considered welcome. For the former football star with NFL aspirations, it had to be a come down.

The gaps in Holtzclaw’s records of meeting with the women who accused him of rape can totally be explained:

There were periods of time left unaccounted for because Holtzclaw either turned off the computer in his car or didn’t radio in updates. It was during these times, the prosecutors charged and the jury determined, when Holtzclaw went from the football player turned caring cop to serial rapist. But the defense, and even Holtzclaw’s most earnest defenders, his family and supporters, firmly believe those assaults never took place. They consider those gaps inconsequential, nothing more significant than a harried cop on the beat who sometimes forgot to make a radio call or flip a switch, rather than the premeditated actions of someone preparing to commit a sexual assault.

Maybe he raped women because of CTE!

Scientists at Boston University determined, according to the HBO report, that lesions in the anterior temporal lobe of many former players’ brains have been impacted by the constant head trauma. In the report, Dr. Ann McKee, told HBO that when damaged, that part of brain, which controls emotions and self-control, can lead to bouts of anger and aggression. The potential connection in Holtzclaw’s case is intriguing, but hardly certain, and without testing, there is no real way to determine if Holtzclaw is affected, or, even if he is, if that may have played a role in his crimes.

Maybe he had an undiagnosed sexual disorder that made him “a completely different person,” per sex behavioral expert Fred Berlin:

Any such disorder, coupled with the disappointment of watching a football career end prematurely and the removal of that as motivation to suppress conduct he knew would adversely affect that goal, could spell trouble. The addition of an extra dose of aggression fueled by steroids or other performance enhancing drugs might cause even more.

The 13 women who testified that Holtzclaw assaulted them? They were unreliable:

In the defense’s view, there were too many instances where the women who brought complaints against Holtzclaw had changed their story. There was little physical evidence, and Holtzclaw had never wavered in his accounts and remained cooperative as detectives questioned his role in the encounters with his victims. Holtzclaw’s sister, Jennifer, currently maintains a website that outlines what the family believes to be the shortcomings in the case against Daniel,, and Bates does the same on his own website.

You may be wondering how many times Arnold directly quotes Holtzclaw’s victims in his 12,000-word piece. The answer: exactly once.

Another victim, who was 17 at the time, spoke of how she was now afraid to leave her house, telling the court that, “Every time I see the police, I don’t even know what to do.”