Editor’s Note: This story contains graphic accounts of sexual assault and other inappropriate sexual behavior. It is not suitable for younger readers.
VISTA, Calif. — Kellen Winslow Jr. emerged from the courthouse, squinting in the Southern California sunshine, and stepped into a situation he’d been in countless times on autumn days just like this one: cameras trained on him, a reporter’s extended arm holding a microphone in his face.
The reporter, from the local Fox affiliate, had only one question for Winslow after the pre-trial hearing: “Is there anything you want to say to your fans out there?”
“I’m innocent,” Winslow answered. “To the people who know me out there, who know what type of person I am, know my character, my NFL friends and family, my regular friends and family... they know who I am.”
Winslow has lived his entire life in the public eye. He’s the namesake of football royalty and a rare athletic talent in his own right. With that stardom comes fame, and with fame comes familiarity. He was a great football player. He was a confident, at-times brash talker (infamously, on one occasion, he was “a f---ing soldier”). He walked red carpets with his wife, Janelle, a husband and father. He was—and still is—wealthy, and records of his immense football earnings, more than $43 million for his career, are available via Google search. They know who I am.
The crime spree of which Winslow is accused—and now, in part, convicted—is disturbing. He will spend years in prison for the rape of a 58-year-old homeless woman. He has also been convicted of exposing himself to a 59-year-old woman in the middle of a spring day while she worked in her garden, as well as making lewd gestures toward a 77-year-old woman while she worked out at a gym. A jury remained hopelessly deadlocked on eight other charges, causing the judge to declare a mistrial on those counts, though the jury splits were said to be in favor of guilt on all eight. He’s been charged with raping two more women, the incidents taking place 15 years apart. Last summer, police accused Winslow of breaking into the homes of two other women, ages 86 and 71, and believed he intended to rape them (those charges were dismissed pre-trial).
Winslow’s football star image, projected and cultivated over decades, is difficult to square with any of it. But a look behind that facade reveals the current of darkness that carried him to this place: power, privilege, wealth and the enablement that comes with them; some close to him are certain there’s an element of football’s concussion crisis. All of it is underlined by years of unchecked deviant sexual behavior—appalling stories from his playing days that former teammates, coaches and officials shared with SI. This is who Kellen Winslow Jr. is.
Winslow was charged with 12 criminal counts, including seven felonies, stemming from the accusations of five different accusers, taking place in Encinitas, a beach town 25 miles north of San Diego. As the trial began in May, the stark contrast between those accusers and the accused was immediately clear.
In the courtroom was Winslow’s father, the lean, towering Hall of Fame tight end of the same name, seated behind his son in a section demarcated for family. And there was always family; on every day of the trial the defendant’s relatives filled the rows, dressed to the nines, looking upon accusers suspiciously and whispering observations to one another. Winslow Sr. also hosted a number of former San Diego Chargers teammates who came in support of the Winslow family.
After appearing alongside her husband while entering and exiting preliminary hearings, Janelle Winslow didn’t make an appearance at the trial until closing arguments. Saturday will be the 13th anniversary of her wedding to Kellen Winslow Jr.
There were 10 days of testimony. Winslow, wearing bookish glasses, took notes on a yellow legal pad while listening intently, flanked by his high-priced lawyers who were no strangers to the CourtTV cameras stationed across the room. The defendant’s muted, vaguely quizzical expression rarely broke during the trial, even as prosecutor Dan Owens elicited graphic testimony of alleged oral, vaginal and anal rape from Winslow’s accusers. Winslow never offered a word in his own defense, choosing not to testify. “We didn’t have to,” one of his lawyers told reporters after the jury went to deliberation.
The ages of the five accusers when they first encountered Winslow ranged from 17 to 77: a hitchhiker, a homeless woman, a woman working in her front-yard garden, a high schooler passed out at a house party, an elderly gym goer. It’s hard to envision how any of them would have ever crossed paths with the famous football player. But that might be precisely why they ended up here.
“What he’s alleged to have done is much more common than people think,” says Dr. Rachel Lovell, Senior Research Associate at Case Western Reserve University’s Begun Center for Violence Prevention Research and Education.
The common thread among the victims is their vulnerability, Lovell explains. “Rapists in particular tend to repeatedly rape and target people who are vulnerable and they think won’t go to the authorities, won’t be believed [if they do], and who won’t seem to be credible witnesses.”
Lovell leads a project that facilitates the testing of backlogged rape kits across the country. She says her home county, Cuyahoga (Ohio), is leading the nation in prosecutions of backlogged rape kits. Years of Law & Order marathons have created an expectation that rapists have a recognizable type. But one thing Lovell’s research has revealed is that rapists will choose victims across a range of ages, physical attributes, even genders. Vulnerability is the common thread.
“When we look at the backlogged rape cases being prosecuted now,” she says, “you can see why many of them weren’t prosecuted initially, because the victims could be discredited, because they could be characterized as mentally ill or confused. But there’s this great power in being able to see someone’s offending history. Once you put them all together you can see this is not an issue of, ‘She’s homeless and she doesn’t remember,’ or, ‘This is a sex deal gone bad.’ You see that they’re just preying on vulnerable individuals.”
Dr. Neil Malamuth, a social scientist and professor of psychology at UCLA specializing in sexual violence, adds that Winslow’s stardom, fame and wealth might have actually played into his actions.
“You would think he’d have access to any number of women,” Malamuth says, “but our research indicates that sexual arousal to power over women, arousal to being able to subdue women, hostility towards women, are parts of an entitled, narcissistic personality. These are the primary risk factors [for a man becoming a rapist]. Men of privilege are often the greatest at risk. Think of a lot of the men who have been recently identified [through] the #MeToo movement.”
The #MeToo movement actually played a role for Winslow’s defense team. During voir dire they polled potential jurors on attitudes on #MeToo, a recent reckoning for high profile men accused of wrongdoing ranging from sexual harassment to rape.
“It’s a money grab,” is how Winslow explained it last fall, when making his—to this point—only public comments on the case. “Unfortunately, that’s the society we live in now.” (As of Wednesday there have been no civil actions brought by any of the accusers.)
The defense had some success—Winslow was acquitted on one lewd conduct charge, and the jury could not reach a verdict on eight of the 12 counts, leading to a mistrial on those charges. But Winslow is now convicted of raping a 58-year-old homeless woman, exposing himself to a 59-year-old woman in front of her house, and touching himself inappropriately in front of a 77-year-old woman at a gym. Even if his claim of consensual sex with Jane Doe #1 (Sports Illustrated will protect the identities of all five accusers) is believed, it means he is a married father of three who had sex with a 54-year-old stranger he picked up hitchhiking. They are behaviors with which family and friends still must reckon. It has been long overdue.
Kellen Winslow Sr. was in town. The Cleveland Browns were planning on filming a video spot, at the team facility in Berea, starring father—the Hall of Famer—and son—the first-round pick and future star.
Dad was ready to go, but son was nowhere to be found. A team official noticed his Hummer parked across the street, in a guest parking lot. An equipment manager was sent to check the vehicle on the off chance Winslow Jr. was in it. The staffer found him there, in the back seat, masturbating.
That anecdote (not raised at trial) was relayed to SI by two officials from that Browns team. Conversations with former teammates, coaches and officials from three of the four teams Winslow played for in the NFL painted the picture of a talented, hard-working athlete, as well as a man who, in his interactions off the field, had a reputation as a teammate for whom accepted social norms did not apply.
From his early years in Cleveland (2004-08), to his final NFL season in 2013 with the Jets, Winslow became known to co-workers as a compulsive masturbater and pornography enthusiast, according to two teammates and three former team officials. He could count on having an empty seat next to him on any team flight, due to his ritual of watching hardcore pornography on his portable DVD player, according to those sources. On one occasion, an equipment manager tasked with delivering gear to lockers after hours walked in on Winslow masturbating at his locker, two seats away from the entrance, according to two team officials familiar with the incident.
During road games when the team stayed at a hotel and had a curfew, assistant coaches who performed bed checks reported on multiple occasions finding Winslow watching pornography. When pornography became widely available on mobile phones, he often watched it on his smartphone during meetings, the two former teammates said (nowadays, such sites would typically be blocked by the building WiFi). Teammates begged out of shared hotel room assignments with Winslow because he watched pornography and masturbated openly, with no regard for who was in the room, a teammate and an official said. Romeo Crennel, former Browns head coach, and former Browns assistant Terry Robiskie made efforts to mentor Winslow and impress upon him expectations of appropriate behavior, according to the officials, especially once Crennel became aware of a road-trip roommate’s pleas for a new assignment. The advice, apparently, didn’t get through. Later on in his career, after being sent to Tampa Bay via trade, Winslow acquired a life-sized silicone mold of a woman’s torso—complete with vagina and anus—to bring with him on road trips, according to one former assistant coach.
Sources who participated in this story are clear on this: When it came to actual women, Winslow was never accused of aggression during his time in the NFL. Though he bragged about cheating on his wife with one-night stands in new cities, and was known to spend entire offseasons on an accommodating teammate’s couch, partying and dating around, team officials said his behavior toward women could never be categorized as harassment or assault. “He was infantile, just very transparent,” said one official. “With Kellen, everybody knew what he was about: video games and f---ing.”
Watching copious hours of pornography, or masturbating in inappropriate places, is no guarantee that person will become a rapist. Nevertheless, one former coach said the charges against Winslow Jr. were not surprising, and a second former coach agrees: “He showed the signs of being a perv, but clearly it has escalated. This is another level.”
If it was immaturity, Winslow never grew out of it. If it was a misunderstanding of boundaries, he never adjusted. If it was a condition, like compulsive sexual behavior disorder (CSBD), or any of a range of paraphilic disorders, he was never effectively treated.
Just after the conclusion of what would be his lone season with the New York Jets and final year in the NFL, Winslow was arrested and charged with possession of synthetic marijuana. It stemmed from an incident the previous November, when police searched Winslow’s Cadillac Escalade in the parking lot of a Target in East Hanover, N.J. They had been tipped off by a woman who called the police, saying she saw a man masturbating in the parked vehicle.
According to the police report, when the officer arrived Winslow was “slouched in his seat and moving around… then moved into an upright position” as the officer approached. The officer noted that Winslow’s genitals were not exposed when he arrived, but there were two open containers of Vaseline in the center console. (Winslow told the officer he had been looking for a Boston Market restaurant and was lost.) There were never charges beyond the possession of synthetic marijuana, for which he received a conditional discharge. After the arrest, which took place in January, Denise White, his marketing representative and publicist, released a statement calling the masturbation claim “unfounded and ridiculous,” and saying Winslow had been changing his clothes.
Last week, before any verdicts had been handed down, White said she believed steadfastly in Winslow’s innocence. “I’ve seen him grow from a young boy into a man, and I know his secrets, like when he dated multiple women or was late to a meeting, and they weren’t drastic. Of course anyone would be surprised at [the arrest and subsequent trial], when you’ve known someone for that long. There are guys that are hypersexually active, and there are guys in my career that I’ve been concerned about with that. Kellen was never one of them. So for this to happen to him is extremely depressing.” When asked about his reported propensity for public masturbation, White declined comment.
White also spoke on Winslow’s behalf in June, when Winslow allegedly entered an 86-year-old woman’s trailer-park home shirtless before being spotted by a neighbor, who called police. The witness confronted Winslow, who told her he was searching for his dog (a red dog named “Clifford,” Winslow reportedly told her). White told media outlets Winslow was searching for a home for his mother-in-law. “An over-reactive neighbor called police after she saw Kellen walking around a mobile home,” she said in a statement on Winslow’s behalf. Many in the media took it as a case of racial profiling—that Winslow was the victim. #HouseHuntingWhileBlack trended on Twitter. But he had allegedly entered the home of a 71-year-old woman six days earlier. Investigators said they believed, in both cases, he intended to rape the women. He originally faced first-degree burglary charges in both instances, but they were later dropped to misdemeanor charges and eventually dismissed during a pre-trial hearing.
The topic of pornography came up in the early stages of the investigation. Serving a search warrant at Winslow’s home, police found internet pornography search history involving “elders.” Winslow’s attorneys successfully petitioned the court to exclude that evidence.
In March, Winslow’s bail was revoked while he awaited trial. He was accused (and, on Monday, convicted) of lewd conduct toward a 77-year-old gym goer, Jane Doe #5, in February. Prosecutors also alleged Winslow, in January, “contacted an 18-year-old high school student who was walking home from school, and he commented that he had seen her in the area the last couple of days. He told her that he thought that she was cute, he asked her for her phone number, he asked her how old she was, he asked her where she lived, and she rebuffed his advances. She did not get into his car, but she went into a friend’s home who lived nearby.” The parents of the student's friend contacted police.
During the trial, Winslow Sr. shepherded relatives back-and-forth on bathroom breaks, staring down media members who might hazard a question. On one occasion, he accused a news station staffer carrying a microphone in his pocket of secretly recording family conversations, and petitioned bailiffs to have the man removed (he was instead moved across the aisle to another section). On another occasion, he accused a reporter of following his ex-wife in a car during a lunch break. “Do you think your son needs help?” the reporter retorted. Winslow, paused and glared, then walked out of the crowded hallway into the courtroom to vent.
Across from Winslow Jr.’s high-powered legal team was Owens, San Diego County’s deputy district attorney. He sat alone, prosecuting the case without co-counsel. His star witnesses, the accusers, were a procession of humbled women. Unlike Winslow, their lives had not been lived in the spotlight, their stories not familiar, their faces (as would remain the case at trial) not captured by television cameras—literal “Jane Does” in the courtroom. They are more than footnotes in the fall of the football star; their identities are key pieces in the puzzle of Winslow’s behavior. And their trauma was palpable.
Jane Doe #1: She is a 55-year-old woman, 54 at the time she met Winslow, who left the impression of someone who has lived a hard life. She testified that, on March 17, 2018, she was hitchhiking when Winslow picked her up, drove her to a more secluded area, raped her and threatened to kill her. During a preliminary hearing, she had misidentified one of Winslow’s attorneys, Brian Watkins, as Winslow (Winslow had changed his look before that hearing, appearing clean-shaven and bespectacled for the first time). The defense also seized on the fact that Jane Doe #1 had multiple opportunities for easy escape—at one point she scaled a chain-link fence within a short walk from an open restaurant to meet Winslow on the other side. A DNA analyst testified that there were traces of Winslow’s sperm, mixed with Jane Doe #1’s blood, on the crotch of the white pants she turned over to authorities. The defense argued the sex was consensual. During direct testimony at the trial, she at one point interrupted Owens to eagerly describe the size of Winslow’s penis. During cross examination, she testified that she hadn’t had a drink of alcohol in 30 years (she was asked if she had been drinking on St. Patrick’s Day), opening the door for the defense to introduce a series of recent public intoxication citations. (Jane Doe #1 later amended her testimony to say she hadn’t had a drink that day.) She had told police she assumed Winslow was armed that day (he was not) because he was black. Her daughter later testified in an attempt to corroborate her mother’s story. On cross examination, the defense asked her about the formation of a GoFundMe page, seeking $50,000 on behalf of her mother. Of course, none of this means Jane Doe #1 was not raped—another myth perpetuated by police procedurals is that accusers can consistently recall all details and that the narrative of an attack is straightforward—but her testimony made it difficult for the prosecution to prove it beyond a reasonable doubt. The jury could not come to a verdict on any of the three counts linked to her accusations (kidnap for specific felony crime, forcible rape, forcible oral copulation). The jury split on those three charges (7-5 in favor of guilt) was Winslow’s most favorable on the remaining eight counts.
Jane Doe #2: The 59-year-old (58 and homeless when she was assaulted by Winslow) spoke softly, her voice trembling at times. She had to be reminded multiple times to speak loudly and clearly into the microphone on the witness stand. Her testimony was firm though—at one point she asked defense attorney Marc Carlos to move away from Winslow so that she wouldn’t have to look at her attacker. In her testimony, she described Winslow, who she knew as “Kevin,” offering her rides, meals and coffee on occasion over the course of months. At one point, she testified, Winslow offered money for sex, which she declined. She said that, on May 13, 2018, Winslow picked her up with an offer of coffee, but instead pulled over, choked her and raped her from behind while standing outside the passenger side of his vehicle, then ejaculated into the roadside dirt. On Monday, the jury convicted Winslow on one count of forcible rape, the most serious charge he faced (they could not reach a verdict on a second count, sodomy by use of force). Winslow faces up to eight years in prison on that count alone.
Jane Doe #3: A 59-year-old Vietnamese woman, she testified through a translator, telling the jury that she had encountered Winslow in front of her house twice. She said that, on the first occasion, a man rode up on a bicycle (Winslow is an avid cyclist), approached her, introduced himself as “David” and asked if she was married. She said yes and walked away. On the second occasion, May 24, 2018, she was cutting flowers in her front yard when the same cyclist approached and, after a brief conversation, exposed his penis to her. She did not see his face—she explained that in Vietnamese culture it’s impolite to look a stranger directly in the face—and her physical description of Winslow (she said the cyclist was muscular but only a few inches taller than her, when in fact Winslow is nearly a foot taller) was problematic for the prosecution. But between Winslow’s tattoos and the GPS data from a cycling app that placed him in that area at the time in question, it was enough for the jury to convict Winslow of indecent exposure, a misdemeanor.
Jane Doe #4: Now 33, she came forward with an accusation from June 2003. She testified that when she was 17 and Winslow was 19, the two had a consensual encounter that was cut short when Winslow asked if a friend could watch. They were at the same house party a couple of weeks later. She testified that she was unconscious and awoke to Winslow raping her from behind and pushing her face into the crotch of a friend. She testified that she had read in Sports Illustrated that Winslow might pursue a CTE defense related to concussions suffered during his football career, and resolved to report her rape in support of the other women assaulted. “I remember screaming, No,” she told the jury. The defense said she had changed her story in two different accounts given to investigators, first saying she was sexually assaulted by multiple men in a car Winslow was driving, and later saying that Winslow raped her at a house. The jury could not reach a verdict on the two counts (forcible rape, rape of an unconscious person) connected to Jane Doe #4. The jury split was 10-2 in favor of guilt on the forcible rape count.
Jane Doe #5: A 77-year-old who works out regularly with her husband at a Crunch gym in Carlsbad, Calif., she encountered Winslow when he was also working out there. At the time, Feb. 13, 2019, he was out on bail. She testified that she was exercising at a machine when Winslow stood in front of her and touched himself through his clothing, asking if she liked it. The defense claimed she misconstrued what she had seen, and the fact that Winslow had been on the news as an accused sex offender had clouded her judgment. She was feisty under cross examination. The jury found Winslow guilty on a charge of lewd conduct, a second misdemeanor conviction. Jane Doe #5 also testified that, on Feb. 22, Winslow joined her in a hot tub and masturbated, though the defense convinced the jury that she could not see exactly what he was doing underneath the swirling, bubbling water—Winslow was found not guilty on the second lewd conduct charge, his only acquittal of the 12 counts. A verdict was not reached on two other charges (willful cruelty to an elder, battery against elder or dependent adult).
On Friday, Winslow will be back in court as the state decides whether or not to retry him on the eight counts for which the jury could not reach a verdict. His legal team has implied they intend to appeal the convictions. (Update: Winslow will be retried on all eight counts.)
“Kellen does have CTE, there’s no two ways about it,” said one source close to the Winslow family.
Over the past year, many outlets—including Sports Illustrated—openly wondered if Winslow would opt for a concussion-related defense, claiming impaired judgment due to the years of head trauma suffered during his football career. According to two sources close to the family, Winslow’s behavior shifted noticeably in the years he’s been away from football, his moods a pendulum swinging between lethargy and anger. “He’s just not the same person,” says one family friend.
Among Winslow’s family and closest friends, there were advocates for a “CTE defense.” However, there would have been hurdles. Behavioral changes could be explained by the seismic shift from life as an NFL player—the routine, the purpose, and the opportunity (which Winslow is said to have taken) for a variety of women in a variety of cities—to a life at home. Retirement can be particularly difficult for someone like Winslow, who was still trying to get back into the NFL as recently as last year. Perhaps more problematically, chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) can only be diagnosed posthumously. There is no way to prove definitively that Winslow is suffering from CTE. And if he is, to what extent is it affecting his behavior?
“The way I view CTE is: Just like any debilitating brain disorder, it will bring out genetic problems and make them worse,” says Dr. Robert Cantu, professor of neurology and neurosurgery at Boston University. “If you were genetically programmed to have a problem with, for instance, aberrant sexual behavior, put CTE on top of it and it’s just like pouring kerosene on a fire.
“However, you have to balance that with this: The overwhelming majority of people who commit the kind of acts that Kellen Winslow is alleged to have committed didn’t play football in the NFL, didn’t have repetitive head trauma, and, clearly, CTE wasn’t why they did what they did.”
Dr. Grahame Simpson, a professor at Australia’s Griffith University and director of the Ingham Institute’s Brain Injury Rehabilitation Research Group, has studied the link between inappropriate sexual behavior and traumatic brain injuries. Simpson emphasizes that the injuries of the patients he works with are not what you would find with former professional football players—they have suffered a specific event that would be categorized as a traumatic brain injury (such as car accident victims). In Simpson’s study of those severely injured patients, a small minority (8.9 percent) of the subjects displayed inappropriate sexual behaviors, more than half of which were categorized as “inappropriate sexual talk.”
Winslow did not suffer any reported concussions in the NFL, though the bulk of his career took place before the league had become vigilant about head safety. He could have had unreported concussions. Even if he did not, he might very well be suffering from the cumulative effect of repeated blows to the head.
“We always have to walk carefully,” Simpson says. “When I first started working, a lot of people with mild [brain] injuries weren’t believed because the CT scans didn’t pick up the neuronal damage they had experienced.” But, he adds: “You have, theoretically, hundreds of athletes suffering from CTE. Why would this individual, but not the other 99 percent, be participating in this kind of severe behavior?”
Winslow has been out of the NFL since 2013, his age-30 season. He attempted a comeback, playing in The Spring League, a developmental league, in 2017. He reached out to teams as recently as the spring of 2018 in hopes of a comeback, according to one coach. He believed, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he was still a football player.
Some in his inner circle believe a brain damaged on those NFL Sundays fueled the behavior that will now land him in prison. And in court his attorneys laid out a defense that banked, in part, on viewing the #MeToo movement as an overcorrection that put men like Winslow in the crosshairs. Or that this is about the money. In short, that perhaps he is the real victim.
On Monday afternoon, he watched as a jury foreman handed four verdicts to the judge, who reviewed them to make sure they were in order then handed them to a clerk, asking her to read them aloud. As she did, Winslow looked around the otherwise silent courtroom, mouth slightly agape, looking dazed, certainly in disbelief at what had just happened. A jury had told Kellen Winslow Jr. exactly who he is.
Jeff Goldberg contributed reporting to this story