EMU’s football program figures prominently in controversial story of Oklahoma City serial rapist cop Daniel Holtzclaw

I suppose there’s a good chance that all of you already know this, but, up until last night, when I read the controversial SB Nation article about Daniel Holtzclaw, the Oklahoma City police officer who was sentenced last month to 263 years in prison for raping eight women while on duty, I wasn’t aware of the fact that he’d played football and Eastern Michigan University and graduated from the school with a degree in criminal justice.

I hesitate to link to the article, which was written by former Ann Arbor News sports reporter Jeff Arnold, as it comes across as largely sympathetic toward Holtzclaw, who repeatedly used the power of his position as a police officer to take advantage of poor and vulnerable African American women in the community that he had sworn to protect and serve, but I did find much of it interesting, especially as it related to the four years the linebacker spent here, playing for EMU. In particular, I was struck by the suggestion late in the article that Holtzclaw<'s behavior might be attributable, at least in part, to the brain trauma he received while a football player at EMU. [This is one of the many possible excuses the author offers to explain how this otherwise upstanding young man, who was described by his his defense attorney as “naïve and very gullible,” could have possibly done such terrible things.] Before we get to that, though, I want to share this quote from SB Nation Editorial Director Spencer Hall, whose decision it was to pull the article from their site. Arnold's article, according to Hall, was "tone-deaf, insensitive to the victims of sexual assault and rape, and wrongheaded in approach and execution.” And, for what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly agree with that assessment of the piece, which, to a great extent, reads like a desperate attempt to place blame for Holtzclaw’s actions on things like chronic trauma encephalopathy (CTE) and his disappointment at having failed to reach the NFL, rather than on things like racism and a culture that largely turns a blind eye to police violence. With that said, though, I did find the article, which can still be found cached online, to be fascinating… Following, to give you a sense of the piece, are a few excerpts.

First, by way of background, here’s Arnold’s description of how Holtzclaw systematically preyed on vulnerable African American women.

…In each case, women ranging in age from 17 to 57, most with troubled pasts, claimed that at some point during a six-month period between late 2013 and the summer of 2014, each was victimized by a cop who stopped them due to some traffic offense, usually determined their vulnerability due to past offenses, then forced himself on them sexually in exchange for not making their legal issues any worse than they already were…

Jannie Ligons, the grandmother whose initial complaint became a focal point of the state’s case, testified that in the summer of 2014, Holtzclaw pulled her over for erratic driving at 2 a.m., just as his shift ended. Ligons was was on her way home after playing dominoes with friends. During the traffic stop, Ligons, who, unlike other Holtzclaw victims had no criminal record, testified Holtzclaw started to conduct a search during which he ordered the daycare worker to lift her shirt and then remove her pants. Holtzclaw, according to Ligons’ testimony, lowered the beam of his flashlight between her legs before unzipping his pants and ordering her to perform oral sodomy. “Come on,” Ligons testified Holtzclaw said at the time, “I don’t have all night.”

Believing she might be shot if she did not comply, Ligons did as Holtzclaw ordered. She later told local media outlets that all she could see at the time “my life flashing in front of my eyes and the holster on his right side.” In every case, prosecutors maintained Holtzclaw sexually assaulted and raped his victims believing they would be too frightened and intimidated to report him. Ligons, however, was not. Her accusations triggered an internal investigation by the Oklahoma City Police Department’s sex crimes unit that resulted in the 36 charges Holtzclaw faced in court…

And, as I alluded to earlier, here’s Arnold’s suggestion that the behavior described above could be the result of repeated head trauma.

…In 2014, a report on HBO’s Real Sports concluded that former players who exhibit histories with domestic violence and bursts of rage can be linked to CTE, a brain disease caused from repeated blows to the head, but that can only be diagnosed once a player has died. 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…

[In Arnold’s defense, it should be noted that he did go on to say that there was no proof that CTE played a role. “The potential connection in Holtzclaw’s case is intriguing, but hardly certain,” the author said, “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.”]

While I don’t necessarily want to debate what may have influenced Holtzclaw’s behavior, I do find it worth noting the SB Nation article points toward two specific things that happened to the young man while at EMU that may have been contributing factors. The first, as noted above, was the repeated head trauma he was subjected to as linebacker on the football team. The second involved a program launched by EMU’s then football coach Jeff Genyk, which made late-night ride-alongs with local Ypsilanti police mandatory. As Holtzclaw grew up in a family of police officers, I doubt his exposure to the Ypsi Police Department made that big of an impact, but, as Arnold brings it up, I thought that I should at least mention it. Here’s a clip from the article which goes into more detail.

…Genyk, who came to Eastern Michigan following a stint at as an assistant coach at Northwestern, also instituted a mandatory program in which players took part in police ride-alongs, spending Friday and Saturday nights during the off-season patrolling the surrounding community as a reminder of the trouble that could be found if players went looking for it.

During the required two-hour shifts, players occupied the back seat of county patrol cars as the local cops guided them through a typical night on the job. The rides extended from Eastern Michigan’s campus to Ypsilanti’s neighborhoods and into nearby trailer parks, providing athletes who routinely limited their free time to more sedate parts of town a glimpse into the areas were officers were typically called to respond to trouble.

For some, the experience may have served as just that. But for others, and perhaps for Holtzclaw, a ride through the seedier, poorer side of town might have proven both fascinating and strangely seductive, a place where it is obvious the poor and the powerless are vulnerable and easily victimized. Much more so than (Holtzclaw’s hometown of Enid, Oklahoma), parts of Ypsilanti are marked by poverty. A mixed-race community that is one-third black, 25 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.

Like most cities located near Detroit, Ypsilanti had once been a booming automotive town, where workers flocked to for employment at the local auto factories. The population has dropped by a third since 1970, and General Motors closed down the power train division plant in 2010. Although local officials have attempted to portray Ypsilanti as an idyllic place to live, all parts of the city don’t necessarily fit that mold. There is poverty, there are drugs, and at that intersection, like the section of Oklahoma City Holtzclaw later patrolled as a policeman, there is often crime…

So, maybe, according to Arnold, it’s Ypsilanti’s fault for having been so “strangely seductive”… maybe we share some of the responsibility for making it obvious to Holtzclaw that “the poor and the powerless are vulnerable and easily victimized.” [note: In case it’s not clear, I intended that last sentence to be read with sarcasm.]

Or maybe it’s the fault of the NFL for not having drafted Holtzclaw upon graduation, forcing him back to Oklahoma to become a cop.

…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.

Without football, Holtzclaw turned to law enforcement, continuing his family’s tradition of turning out police officers, training at the Oklahoma City police academy, where he was hired September of 2011. Yet his failure to play professionally remained a sore subject even as Holtzclaw’s law enforcement career in Oklahoma City was getting underway…

So, yes, it’s a hugely flawed piece. It talks about head trauma and career disappointment, while virtually ignoring racism and the culture of violence within the Oklahoma City police department, which, to me, seem like much more significant factors, especially given what we know about sexual assaults perpetrated by police officers. It also largely ignores the voices of the Holtzclaw’s victims. Arnold, while not suggesting that Holtzclaw is innocent of these crimes, seems to be looking for a explanation as to why this ‘good kid’ may have committed these terrible acts. And, given this, I’m not at all surprised that this story has been roundly criticized. With that said, though, given the local connection, I’m curious to know what people think. Is this a case that people within EMU and our local police department are discussing? And, are we likely to see any change within either institution as a result? Will, EMU, for instance, do more to institute comprehensive anti-rape educational initiatives, not just for its football players, but across campus? And will these police ride-alongs, if that’s something that still happens, be stopped?

[The above photo of Holtzclaw was taken just after leaving EMU, during a Detroit Lions mini-camp. Holtzclaw, who went undrafted after graduation, did earn an invitation to try out for the Lions. The organization, however, chose not to extend an offer.]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized, Ypsilanti and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.


  1. No Fault Linebacker
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 10:11 am | Permalink

    Football failed this poor man. Education failed this poor man. Women failed this poor man. The seductive power of policing failed this poor man.

    I weep thinking about how Holtzclaw was tricked in to raping all those women, after all he “didn’t have all night”.

  2. Kim
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Both football and policing promote a toxic strain of masculinity. They don’t just promote it, they thrive on it.

  3. Steve
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 10:33 am | Permalink

    EMU should just abolish their football program. Mainly because it’s just pathetic. There’s some good land where that stadium sits that could be put to a better use.

  4. Jean Henry
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    This guy was a very bad man. I’m not really interested in speculation on why he did what he did. It really doesnt matter to anyone but him. Plenty of people experience worse trauma and are not rapists, much less serial rapists. There is no proof of CTE. They haven’t even done the testing. The pull quotes in this are sections of pure speculation. The publishers pulled the article because it made excuses and was full of shit. You chose to reprint large sections of it. Does it suddenly become sensitive to the issue because it’s in your hands and plays to your audience? Of course he preyed on vulnerable populations; that’s what violent abusive people do. I do not understand the point of this article or establishing some loose connection to EMU. This stuff happens a lot. He got caught. When you further the speculation on the possible influence of ride-alongs and EMU football, you are not helping anything . It seems sensationalistic and ill conceived.

  5. AW
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Nice analysis of a troubling article and good questions.

    For how long did EMU coaches insist that players ride along with Ypsi police!? I am assuming (hoping) this is not still practiced.

  6. Anonymous
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    I too am curious as to what kind of anti-rape programs have been implemented at EMU. I seem to recall reading something about it after a student was arrested several years ago for raping and murdering a fellow student, but I haven’t heard much since.

  7. Quinn
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I actually think the original “article” is worth a read for those who can stomach it. The “writer” is the most despicable type of rape apologist. Many at SB Nation should step down for green lighting it.

  8. Mark H
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 1:08 pm | Permalink

    The most curious thing about this so-called piece of journalism isn’t it wild speculations about what may have “caused” this horrible rapist to be a rapist, but it’s evident assumption that he was only a rapist AFTER leaving the EMU football team. Speculation about his possible rapist record while playing football would be as well sourced as topics the author speculated about, in his sexist defense of the criminal ex-cop rapist. EMU’s athletic department, like many nationwide, was long known for promoting violent behavior and protecting violent athletes from the consequences of their actions. The current basketball coach, for example, recruited one player from another college, who was facing criminal assault charges and later convicted for then, in Rhode Island. Coach Murphy even tried to testify at the trial on behalf on his recruited hoodlum.

  9. Lynne
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know. On the one hand, I feel that our American idea of “individual responsibility” leads us to ignore factors which contribute to crimes like this, which in turn allows us to simply not do the things we need to do in order to make our society safer. On the other hand, it wouldn’t be good to completely abandon the idea either since obviously it factors in.

    In this case, I think punishing the rapist is important but I don’t think looking into how things like head injuries, social class, racism, police culture, etc factored in to this is necessarily making excuses for the guy. There is no excuse for what he did but if we can identify those contributory factors which were outside of his control, perhaps we can help someone else avoid becoming a criminal?

  10. Steve
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    Mlive did a nice “we’re not nasty bottomfeeders, but here look at this controversial article!” deflection on this same story. Which is ironic, because in my personal “BottomFeeders Dictionary”, Mlive is the first entry.

  11. Geoff Larcom
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 3:18 pm | Permalink

    IMO, The piece needed strongly focused editing at the top of the story (nut graphs) to clarify its intent, which I imagine is to try to explain/trace the roots of what happened. Editors needed to write a much clearer and more descriptive headline, to run far less dramatic narrative and to use better breakouts that contained key excerpts as to possible causes, and not life philosophy quotes. It also needed to be cut in half.

  12. Demetrius
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    IMO, people who comment on an article referencing an institution need to identify themselves as such if they are affiliated with that same institution.

  13. Jean Henry
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    A couple of things to consider here.
    1)Football players are NOT more violent on the whole than the rest of the male population. https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2013/07/01/the-myth-about-crime-and-pro-athletes/qlnKoSMkbhuImiS4pO87WJ/story.html
    2) Police actually show less implicit bias and more restraint in use of force than the average population. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.12099/abstract

    I am not suggesting that police violence or abuse by football players (especially those affected by CTE) is a non-issue. I suggesting that it is no more an issue there than in the general population. I guess I’m asking us all to question our investment in a narrative where certain kinds of people (not like us) are rapists or abusers. I would place this kind of focus alongside the myth of stranger danger that is perpetuated culturally, despite the established fact that most kids will be abducted, abused or killed by a member of their own household or a family friend. When people question the ride alongs (what IS the issue there? Please someone tell me.) or ending football, period, I just want it to be clear that such actions will be unlikely to lower incidence of rape. Rape and sexual abuse are very common events in our country. Although, with growing awareness, incidence has been dropping since the early 90’s. It would be nice to think only a certain kind of man rapes. It’s just not the case.
    It is true however that a certain kind of man prevents rape culture from perpetuating itself. (Not just someone who doesn’t rape, but someone who actively confronts rape culture in its many manifestations) Our focus should be there.

  14. Peter Larson
    Posted February 19, 2016 at 9:35 pm | Permalink

    Can it not be that this guy was just an evil human being?

    Blaming it on head injuries seems to distract from the issue. There is no excuse for what he did.

  15. Posted February 21, 2016 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    For what it’s worth, I never said that only football players and police officers were rapists. I understand that the problem is pervasive. That doesn’t mean, however, at least in my opinion, that we shouldn’t discuss stories like this… I understand your point about context, and the importance of stressing that sexual assault isn’t just something that happens in police cruisers and frat parties, but I don’t see how having this discussion keeps people from also talking about the broader problem, as we’re doing now.

    Suggesting that people shouldn’t be talking about this case because it’s not indicative of most rape cases, is kind of like saying that we shouldn’t talk about corruption in DC as there’s more corruption in local politics, isn’t it? I mean, using this example, isn’t any conversation concerning corruption positive? Doesn’t any conversation open up the door a little wider? …Can nothing be learned from discussing this case?

    For what it’s worth, though, I doubt that I would have broached the subject here if not for the fact that there was a local connection which I hadn’t been aware of before. Having read the SB Nation piece, I was truly interested in how, if at all, Holtzclaw’s crimes were being discussed on campus, within the athletic department, etc. I’m sorry you saw it as sensationalistic and ill-conceived.

  16. Jeremy Allen
    Posted February 28, 2016 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    This article explains how the story went from concept to print to unpublished to archived on the interwebs.


  17. Tom Halberstam
    Posted January 24, 2020 at 8:41 am | Permalink

    New evidence is coming to light. This man may actually not have done these things.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


BUY LOCAL... or shop at Amazon through this link Banner Initiative Nanook