Followers of the story of Daniel Holtzlclaw, the Oklahoma City cop convicted of sexually assaulting eight women of color while on duty, could be forgiven for knowing nothing of his past as an amateur football player.
Yet this was the focus of a 12,000-word SB Nation profile of Holtzclaw that was published Wednesday and pulled from the site just five hours later amid a barrage of criticism.
SB Nation published a note from Editorial Director Spencer Hall taking responsibility for the “complete failure” of a profile.
“The publication of this story represents a complete breakdown of a part of the editorial process at SB Nation,” Hall wrote. “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.”
The story, which was widely condemned on social media as a journalistic flop, painstakingly detailed Holtzclaw’s football career and his tenure as a linebacker at Eastern Michigan University. It hinged on interviews with family members and former teammates who said they couldn’t believe that the well-behaved athlete they knew could be sentenced to 263 years in prison for assaulting women in the low-income, predominantly black neighborhood he patrolled.
As critics have pointed out, the story breezes over Holtzclaw’s crimes and the experiences of the women who were attacked. Instead, it read as a rambling character defense of a man who became “unhinged” after his dream of playing professional football was thwarted.
“Without an NFL dream to aspire to, perhaps he felt that his sacrifices had been for nothing,” Jeff Arnold, who covered Holtzclaw’s college career for The Ann Arbor News, wrote in the article. “As a football player, he had believed he was in charge of his own destiny, now he was stripped of his power.”
Arnold’s article, “Who Is Daniel Holtzclaw?”, floated several unsubstantiated theories for the ex-cop’s actions, including steroid use and the possibility of a football-related brain injury. It also overlooked the racial implications of Holtzclaw’s pattern of abuse, as Arnold pointed to his friendships with black teammates and how the “seedier” side of town would have seemed “fascinating and strangely seductive” to him. The article also repeatedly noted that several of the women Holtzclaw targeted had abused drugs and had previous run-ins with the law.
That framing did not go over too well online. Jezebel’s Kara Brown wrote: “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.” ProPublica reporter Madi Alexander called the piece “the nicest depiction of a serial sexual predator that I have ever read.”
In a scathing takedown at Deadspin, editor Barry Petchesky described the profile as “the local news interviewing the shocked neighbors—‘He always seemed like such a nice kid’—over and over again for 12,000 words.”
Hall said in his editor’s note that SB Nation was “reviewing all of our processes” in the wake of the debacle.
Though the story is now gone from the site, an archived version remains cached online.
As of Thursday morning, Arnold’s Twitter account had been deleted.