Yesterday, the sports site SB Nation published a 12,000-word longform piece on Daniel Holtzclaw, the former Oklahoma City police officer who stood trial on charges that he sexually assaulted 13 black women, was found guilty on 18 of 36 charges, and was sentenced to 263 years.
The piece, which has since been removed, was a lengthy apologia written by a freelance sportswriter who had covered Holtzclaw's college football career. It was a collection of the usual rape culture tropes: Holtzclaw was a great guy; his victims were suspect; he didn't do it, but, if he did, it was because of one of a number of reasons none of which are that he's a gross predator.
After the piece was taken down, the editorial director of SB Nation published a note that admitted: "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." Naturally, he has promised to review "all of our processes in light of this failure."
My friend Jessica Luther, who writes eloquently and passionately and sensitively at the intersection of rape culture and sports, has written a terrific piece about the verbose rubbish published at SB Nation. I highly recommend reading the entire thing, but I was especially struck by this bit:
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.Yes. Because Jeff Arnold wasn't writing a story about sexual assault at all, like most of the sports writers who write about men who harm women. They write stories about Tragic Men.
As Jess notes, the entire framework was "a tragic arc." It is a familiar arc in sports writing: The high-flying athlete who succumbed to injury, or addiction, or impoverishment.
The Tragic Man who had to sell his trophies to a pawn shop. The Tragic Man who had to go to jail after raping women.
It's all the same story. And Holtzclaw's 13 victims are just things that mark his tragic fall from football hero. Jess again:
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.Unlike most men, most women don't have the luxury of being able to disregard the ubiquity of sexual violence, to casually cast it aside in order to write an epic tale of a Tragic Man with whom we're meant to sympathize, instead of sympathizing with his victims.
...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.
[Related Reading: On That Salon Piece.]