On Monday afternoon, ESPN abruptly and unceremoniously canceled its newest television show, “Barstool Van Talk,” less than 48 hours before the second edition of the late-night interview show was scheduled to air. In a blunt statement released on Twitter, ESPN President John Skipper said the cancellation was “effective immediately.”
“While we had approval on the content of the show, I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content,” Skipper said.
The partnership between ESPN and Barstool — the Boston-bred sports and culture site that unabashedly caters to the PC-phobic 18- to 34-year-old man — was eyebrow-raising from the beginning, thanks to Barstool’s well-documented history of misogyny, racism, and harassment.
But the company became embroiled in controversy last week when, the day before the show’s debut, ESPN host Sam Ponder released a series of tweets “welcoming” Barstool to the ESPN family that linked to Barstool’s sexist attacks on Ponder — one blog post that asserted Ponder’s “#1 requirement is you make the men hard,” and another rant that called her a “fucking slut.”
It initially seemed Barstool might escape Ponder’s call-out unscathed, mostly due to a technicality: Ponder incorrectly said that one of the stars of “Barstool Van Talk” wrote the posts in question, when in fact they were the work of Barstool President Dave Portnoy. Though ESPN initially stuck by its decision to work with two of Barstool’s most successful (and unobjectionable) personalities, Big Cat and PFT Commenter, after a week of internal and external pressure, ESPN finally decided the blowback wasn’t worth the 88,000 viewers the show attracted at the 1:00 a.m. hour.
On the surface, this was a big blow for Barstool — its partnership with ESPN was the most high-profile yet for the fast-growing media company, and a golden opportunity for Big Cat and PFT Commenter to build on the success of their juggernaut podcast, Pardon My Take.
But Portnoy (who is known as “El Presidente” in the Barstool universe) did not sound defeated when he began his live press conference on Facebook and Twitter less than an hour after the official announcement. He sounded defiant.
“This is exactly, and I mean exactly, why Barstool Sports has to exist. It has to. Because we’re one of the few places, maybe the only place on the internet, where we don’t let agendas dictate what we do,” Portnoy said. “For 15 years, people who have followed this company know, we just talk, shoot the shit, try to be funny, don’t let PC America get the best of us, and we’ll continue to do that.”
“ESPN had to know who they were getting in business with.”
Portnoy went on to say that he wished he hadn’t used the word “slut” to describe Ponder. He said he used it because “three years ago, it was a very different social climate,” and he wished he could take it back to prevent “Barstool Van Talk” from being canceled. Don’t mistake that for contrition, though.
“I don’t take back the rift, I don’t take back any of it,” he said. “ESPN had to know who they were getting in business with. We didn’t change. We’ve been the same people for 15 years.”
Barstool’s long history of misogyny
Portnoy said plenty of objectionable things in his press conference on Monday afternoon — for one, I’m pretty sure that calling a female reporter a “fucking slut” whose only job is to “make men hard” was just as offensive in 2014 as it is in 2017 — but it’s hard to argue with his main thesis. Barstool has never hidden what it is, and the people behind the site have never apologized for it, either.
That’s why there was so much outrage when “Barstool Van Talk” was first announced. And that’s why it was so laughable when ESPN released a statement last week saying that, while the company found Barstool’s 2014 comments about Ponder “offensive and inappropriate,” it did not have editorial control over Barstool — as if that made it okay.
Barstool’s comments about Ponder don’t exist in a vacuum. Barstool has attacked other female ESPN reporters in the past, most notably Sarah Spain, who Portnoy proudly called a “fucking cunt” a few years ago. (He’s recently blogged about trying to bring the word “cunt” back — as if it’s just the thing missing from our daily discourse.) This is the same site that defended its decision to post naked photos of Tom Brady’s two-year-old son; that once posted an article titled “Slut Reporter Drinks Cam Newton’s Jizz”; and that infamously organized Blackout Parties on college campuses — a party tour hosted by Barstool that Portnoy claimed was named after the black-light portion of its show.
It’s a site that trafficks in what it considers rape “jokes.”
“Even though I never condone rape, if you’re a size 6 and you’re wearing skinny jeans you kind of deserve to be raped right? I mean skinny jeans don’t look good on size 0 and 2 chicks, nevermind size 6′s,” Portnoy wrote in 2010.
In 2011, in a blog post titled “Kobe Better Not Have Raped Alex Morgan,” Portnoy wrote, “Like it’s one thing to stick your dick in random chick’s assholes and them buy them off, but it’s a different game altogether when they are famous.” In 2012, when defending Blackout Parties to protesters, Portnoy said, “Just to make friends with the feminists I’d like to reiterate that we don’t condone rape of any kind at our Blackout Parties in mid-January. However if a chick passes out that’s a grey area though.”
Barstool Sports is overwhelmingly white, cis, and straight, and there have never been many women (or should I say “girls”) in the Barstool universe.
Barstool’s most prominent public-facing female personality was Jenna Marbles, a YouTube celebrity who split with Barstool in 2012. Portnoy has publicly fought with Marbles because he says she doesn’t give him enough credit for launching her career. “She told People magazine she fell into making YouTubes. Actually, no, you were working at a tanning salon and I hired you. That’s how you started,” Portnoy said in a 2013 profile in Entreprenuer. “I’ve hired one girl in 10 years, and it was her. …We never could get eye-to-eye.”
Since Marbles, many of the most well-known women featured on Barstool have been college-age interns. The physical appearance of these women is a frequent topic of conversation among fans — and at times among the main Barstool cast itself. A few years ago, for instance, when an intern named Dana was saying goodbye after her summer internship, she participated in a video segment called “Barstool Rundown,” with Portnoy, Big Cat, and another Barstool character, KFC Barstool.
“Dana, the one thing you’ve got to learn is when a guy is trying to fuck you,” Big Cat told her, as she discussed her interactions with men in the office while Portnoy pressured her to share details of her breakup with her boyfriend. “They all are, all the time. There’s the lesson,” KFC added.
Hypocrisy, it seems, is the only mortal sin in Barstool world…They truly believe that the sins of others makes them immune from critique.
Barstool has always adamantly insisted that its “off-color” comments, whether sexist or racist or homophobic, aren’t an actual reflection of their values or character. Instead, they say, these comments are intended as jokes that paint the picture of a supposed utopia where there is no “PC police.”
This approach has garnered Barstool a cult-like following (fans call themselves “Stoolies”), and that audience has multiplied through the years. Two years ago, The Chernin Group bought a controlling stake of Barstool for an estimated $10-15 million, and last year, former AOL executive Erika Nardini came on board as CEO.
Barstool hasn’t changed
But lest you think an influx of cash and a female touch changed Barstool — which is the narrative that many in sports media have bought into — just take a look at their site over the past year. The content they continue to publish, as well as their reaction to call-outs like Ponder’s, proves that just as Portnoy said in his press conference on Monday, “We didn’t change. We’ve been the same people for 15 years.” The only difference is the spotlight on them is a bit brighter these days.
Earlier this year, Barstool blogger Chris Spags wrote an entire post shaming Rhianna for “getting fat,” which he says would be a “tough world to stomach” because it would signal a time where it’s acceptable for “all the hottest girls look like the humans in ‘Wall-E.’” (Portnoy eventually deleted this post after the blowback to it went viral, explaining, “if you’re gonna blog about Rihanna gaining weight you better be funny as fuck and you better make it bullet proof.” Spags and Barstool part ways soon after the blog was deleted.)
Just a few months ago, Portnoy coordinated a slut-shaming cyber attack on an ex-girlfriend who cheated on him, and earlier this month, Portnoy wondered aloud on the radio whether Harvey Weinstein should be allowed to exchange sex for work if it’s consensual and money is involved — ignoring the whole pesky “power dynamics” part of the sexual assault and harassment equation.
And Barstool’s website is still known for recurring features such as “Guess that Ass,” Guess that Rack,” and “Grading the Newest Sex Scandal Teacher.” (These segments are exactly what you think they are — the former feature photos of women where you can see their asses or breasts, and not their faces, and requests that readers guess who the ass or rack belongs to; the latter features female teachers who have raped underage students, and grades how hot the teachers are — see this week’s “People Magazine Catches Up with Deb LaFave, the Sex Scandal Teacher GOAT.”)
“Subtle sexual harassment is fine and dandy. Cervix killing in the DM’s though? Well that’s crossing the line.”
If that’s not enough, there’s always the “Smokeshow of the Day“, and the daily “Wake Up With [Insert Woman Here,]” both of which are archived in the “Girls” tab of the Barstool Sports site for simple navigation.
Barstool’s one all-woman show, “Chicks in the Office,” features two former Barstool interns, Fran and Ria. While Barstool has turned off comments to its “Smokeshow” pieces, it keeps comments on the “Chicks in the Office” posts, and they don’t seem to be moderated: “You two should rub your boxes together,” was the top-rated comment on a recent video.
Earlier this year, when Ria was an intern, she posted a series of harassing DMs she received from a new Barstool intern in their Indianapolis office. This intern went by the name “Cervix Killer” because that was emblazoned on the shirt he wore the day he interviewed for, and was hired for, his Barstool internship. The intern was eventually fired, but the whole incident was used as Barstool content — to the point where Ria had to speak with her harasser live on the radio.
“Granted I guess when you hire somebody who calls themselves the Cervix Killer, who wears a Cervix Killer tshirt to the interview, you get Cervix killer stuff. Classic mix up on our part,” Portnoy blogged. “And yes this guy is fired. Who says we don’t have standards here at Barstool? Subtle sexual harassment is fine and dandy. Cervix killing in the DM’s though? Well that’s crossing the line.”
What sets Barstool apart is its rabid fans
Since the news broke about the show’s cancellation on ESPN, Portnoy and other Stoolies have staunchly defended their site’s reputation when it comes to treating women. But Portnoy’s biggest defense of Barstool is typically that its critics aren’t perfect, either.
This week, Portnoy has argued on both social media and the radio that two of Barstool’s biggest critics, Spain and Ponder, are hypocritical because they have also posted tweets slut-shaming or degrading women. Stoolies have helped fan the flames by digging up Spain’s and Ponder’s old social media posts to use against them.
Portnoy and his cohorts reiterated this position after comedian and actress Jenn Sterger posted a tweet Monday detailing the horrific sexual harassment she was allegedly subjected to when ESPN courted her for a job a few years ago. They combed through Spain’s and Ponder’s accounts to find negative references to Sterger.
Hypocrisy, it seems, is the only mortal sin in Barstool world. Barstool writers and fans aren’t pulling up these old tweets from critics because they believe that slut-shaming, sexism, and victim blaming are toxic; they’re pulling them up because they truly believe that the sins of others makes them immune from critique.
Of course, Barstool isn’t the only place in the sports media universe that posts scantily-clad photos of women, features mostly male voices, and uses degrading language to discuss women. Of course, many people who criticize Barstool may have a patriarchy-upholding skeleton in their closet. Suggesting anything otherwise ignores the reality of our broader culture; misogyny isn’t unique to one website.
But there are some elements of Barstool that are unique compared to other brands. The people who run it are willing to fight for the right to use the words “slut” and “cunt” freely, and are unabashed about the role “chicks” should play in the bro culture they embody. And Barstool’s writers and fans are prepared to lash out online against anyone who criticizes them.
“The reason you needed us is because we’re Barstool. That’s why this audience exists, and it’s not going anywhere.”
Earlier this month, Elika Sadeghi shared what she felt was an inappropriate clause in a contract Barstool offered her, requiring her to confirm that she would be okay working in an environment where she might be exposed to “nudity, sexual scenarios, racial epithets, suggestive gestures, profanity and references to stereotypes.” Though she redacted Barstool’s name in her tweet, Portnoy soon released a video attacking Sadeghi, and Stoolies have continued to go after her in the days and weeks since.
Last year, The Cauldron — which was at the time a sports site associated with Sports Illustrated — published an article entitled “How Barstool Sports Uses Social Media as a Weapon,” detailing the incessant sexist attacks from Stoolies that sports media members were subjected to after they called out a racist tweet from Barstool’s KFC. Barstool responded to The Cauldron piece by launching a non-stop war against Cauldron Editor-in-Chief Jamie O’Grady.
And when FanSided founder Adam Best called out Barstool for misogyny earlier this month, Stoolies went searching through Best’s old tweets to find sexist comments from Best’s past. The distraction tactic worked. Best issued an apology for his past words, and said that he had changed.
All over sports media, there are women afraid to even mention Barstool’s name on social media for fear of a coordinated cyberattack. This loyal, rabid fanbase — the same one that Barstool has leveraged to become, in its words, “the fastest-growing media company in the world” — is always in attack mode.
That unrelenting “common man” fanbase, combined with Portnoy’s unabashed “Barstool vs. Everybody” approach to criticism, is what distinguishes the Barstool universe from the rest of sports media.
Portnoy, to his credit, knows this. ESPN just didn’t get it.
“John Skipper saying he could distance himself from Barstool? Don’t know what that means,” Portnoy said. “You hired Barstool. The deal was with Barstool. The reason you needed us is because we’re Barstool. That’s why this audience exists, and it’s not going anywhere.”