What Fresh Hell Is Barstool Sports?

Barstool Sports fans. Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

I never saw Barstool Sports coming. I probably should have. I am the guy who founded Deadspin, after all, and during the years I actively ran the site — now more than a decade in the past — I was ostensibly in charge of figuring out what was coming next on the sports internet; I was the supposed leader of the blog-barbarians at the gate, all those bulls (and we were all bulls) running roughshod over the Traditional Sports Media. In retrospect, if I had been paying closer attention, maybe I could have done something to stop Barstool, or at least to slow them down. But I had no interest in being an online avatar of any sort of movement — that someone created a shirt with this image on it is maybe the weirdest thing that has ever happened to me — and was in fact exhausted by the online celebrity status Deadspin had thrust upon me back then. I didn’t want to be a leader, or a visionary, or a Personality: I just wanted to write my little stories.

But Deadspin was growing faster than I’d ever anticipated, and the job started to become less about writing stories I found interesting and more about increasing traffic, engaging in petty online turf wars, and Fighting The Man. So I left and joined this magazine. Blog wars haven’t been my game for a decade.

So I missed the beginnings of Barstool entirely. But when I finally looked at it and its leader Dave Portnoy — when its particular brand of lunkheaded, increasingly misogynist, hey-it’s-just-sports-what’s-the-problem? had gotten popular enough that I could no longer ignore it if I wanted to — it looked awfully familiar. It looked like all the junk that burbled up once Deadspin had gotten large enough that it wasn’t just smug little hipsters like me reading it. The people writing for Barstool were the people writing in the comments section when I wrote about high school football player (and future Olympian) Holley Mangold and how she was dominating male players and impressing her NFL offensive lineman brother, Nick. They were the people who growled when we mentioned the WNBA having a new television deal. They were the ones who got angry any time I mentioned politics on the site. As a phenomenon, they were something I was initially bemused by, then angered by, then concerned about — were they here because my writing had the reactionary bent they wanted? Was I just as bad as them without realizing it? I’m sure that scanning the archives of Deadspin would reveal all kinds of shortsightedness I’d be embarrassed by a decade later. Maybe I was the problem? Maybe I am? I briefly attempted to fight them, then, finally, ceded the space and moved on with my life. I figured they’d all punch themselves out and eventually grow up; I figured they’d knock it off when there were actual stakes.

I knew so little about the internet I honestly cannot believe I was ever allowed to run a website.

Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports. Photo: John Parra/Getty Images

I don’t think I could have stopped Barstool had I tried — and I had absolutely no interest in trying. But when you look at the industry power they have accumulated (a $100 million valuation, sponsorships with major brands, an XM radio show that always seems to be spitting at me when I scroll by it on the dial), mostly by steering into the skid of the worst of what the internet has to offer — which has proven to be a rather lasting and successful business plan! — and at how they have used that power to relentlessly abuse women in the industry, I sure do wish I had fought harder. The Daily Beast’s Robert Silverman wrote a devastating piece yesterday that detailed, in painstaking, ghastly detail, how Barstool has not only fomented a culture of attacking women who dare to question them, but has in fact consistently profited from that culture, using its “Stoolies” as some sort of Cretin Army. It does seem like the piece —which didn’t actually provide a ton of new information for anyone who has been paying attention, but is so well-organized that the case it makes against the site is overwhelming — might be a bit of a tipping point for the site. Barstool partners who had only been paying casual attention as long as the Millennial Ad Dollars were rolling in may finally recognize the monsters they’ve been dealing with. (That they, and we, may only now be reaching this point, because a white man has written about it in a major publication, when women have been telling us about Barstool for years, is its own indictment — of myself, as well.) To see how the 41-year-old Portnoy has encouraged his followers to attack anyone who criticizes him or his site, from the rare male writer (like Silverman, who was doxed by Portnoy and has since made his Twitter private) to the typically female writers, particularly Deadspin’s Laura Wagner, whom he has verbally assaulted in an increasingly aggressive fashion, is to see the man, and his company, for who they really are. Advertisers and media partners might want to align with the media company that has all the young sports fans with expendable incomes … but not when the founder of the company is screaming nightly about how he wants to shove his tongue down the throat of the female journalists covering him and his business.

This seems particularly perilous because Barstool, like other insurgent content plays before them, has been trying to play nice with its corporate buddies, by hiring Erika Nardini as a friendly, female, forward-facing CEO (who appeared on Jim Cramer’s Mad Money, along with Portnoy, two weeks ago, hawking some sort of dumb pizza app), and with the enormously popular (and undeniably funny) Pardon My Take podcast starring Dan “Big Cat” Katz and Eric “PFT Commenter” Sollenberger. As Silverman (and Wagner, and many others) have noted, these are the “nice” Barstool employees, the ones who give cover to Portnoy and the rest of the Stoolies. Sollenberger, in particular, has been singled out, partly because he made his mark in the hipper, more “respectable” sports internet (SB Nation, mostly) before truly exploding in popularity upon joining Barstool, and partly because he is undeniably less connected to Portnoy and the rest of the gang. But this, to many, makes him more culpable, not less; giving Barstool a more accessible forward face discourages Portnoy and his cronies from ever having to change, and allows them to continue to attack female journalists unabated. I’ve known Sollenberger for a few years — I actually helped him sneak into an interview with John Sununu during the 2016 presidential campaign, when I was covering it for Bloomberg — and I like him; he’s a legitimate talent. But it is becoming increasingly clear that the bank shot he’s attempting — riding the Barstool wave without ever getting sucked into its wake — is destined to backfire. Barstool will be with him forever, no matter what happens to it or to him. You are invariably connected to the company you work for when most people learn who you are, even if it’s years afterward; just ask the guy who still gets yelled at when Deadspin pisses somebody off, a decade later.

If anything, Barstool is starting to look like Vice might have looked if it had never gotten rid of founder Gavin McInnes, the former downtown hipster who’s now — and surely always was — what he calls a “Western chauvinist.” Vice smartly jettisoned the unpredictable, chaotic and (oh yeah, also) virulently intolerant McInnes in time to cash in on its industry status as Millennial Whisperers. It appears that Barstool is in danger of missing its window to do the same with Portnoy. People might want to do business with Sollenberger or Nardini, but not with that guy, particularly when he continues to stir up regular shitstorms of harassment all in the name of being “real and honest,” whatever that means. It is much more difficult to ignore that Daily Beast story than it apparently has been to ignore the scores of women Barstool has attacked, who are too afraid of incurring the wrath of its minion army to even type the word “Barstool” in a tweet. These things tend to cascade. And no offense to Portnoy — really! — but, well, you’re not so young anymore yourself now, pal. Take it from another graying straight white dude in his 40s who once tried to harness the whims of the young: There’s always someone younger and cooler and fresher and savvier than you coming, and trying to fight them off is a fool’s errand. You only get to be the cool guy once. And not for very long.

But let’s pause on “cool guy” for a second. What Portnoy has channeled is a familiar sort of character, the sort that has existed long before there were blogs and comment sections: the reactionary sports fan, the person who just wants to watch his (always his) games and hang out with his boys and talk about chicks, embodied famously by the notorious “and twins” Coors Light commercial, which looks so archaic now but is actually younger than Tom Brady’s NFL career.

And I do get it. I understand the idea of sports as escapism, a way to get away from your worries and your fears and the constant stresses of American life, a place to go with your friends to drink beer and eat terrible food and yell at the television and Be Dumb Guys for a while. (“Saturdays are for the boys” is one of Barstool’s long-standing catchphrases.) Having a full day to just sit and watch sports is a legitimate, underappreciated pleasure, and one I try to take advantage of at every opportunity. The problem, of course, is that space safe from the complexities of the modern world — and that is precisely what the sports bar is, a carefully designed, cocooned safe space — is in fact an illusion. Just because you want sports to be totally separate from the rest of the planet doesn’t mean it actually is. What you see as escape, others see as exclusionary. Others get to play, too. That others want to, that this safe space is seen as threatened by the inclusion of people who are different (women, mostly), is what is so threatening, and leads to the lashing out by Portnoy and the SAFTB crowd. The problem is that protectionism is increasingly becoming the whole business plan.

I am sure that simply writing this piece will rain the wrath of the Stoolies down on me — the GIFs of Portnoy doing some mad dance, being called a cuck, all that’s coming, and I’m not looking forward to it. One of the reasons I got out of that game in the first place was because life is far too short to be spent fighting with strangers online, even if you’re right. (Especially if you’re right.)

This is the primary reason I’ve avoided writing about them at all. Who wants that sort of headache? Life’s hard enough. I’d rather spend my time watching sports.

But silence, of course, is what has allowed Portnoy and his meatheads to run so rampant, while the women who have protested and call them out have been so viciously attacked. I know that this is all pretty trivial, in the vast scheme of things. A constitutional crisis looms, they’re taking kids away from their parents, the whole goddamned world’s on fire. These little blog fights are just a bunch of noise, shameless self-promoters shaking their keys and stomping their feet and demanding you pay attention to them. You’re better off going outside, perhaps tending to a garden, taking a walk in a park, maybe reading a goddamned book, once in a while. But ignorance no longer feels like a part of the solution, but a part of the problem. You can’t just leave the fight to those who are most vulnerable and most under fire.

Maybe Silverman’s story is a sign of the fever breaking; maybe I’m just climbing on the bandwagon when it’s finally more comfortable to do so. But the world is dark and scary and mean and in constant need of a little basic human decency, however small. So no more standing idly by. Barstool Sports, as long as it has the founder that it does, is making the world a worse place. It is endorsing harassment and cruelty and bullying. It is, in the way so many little things do these days — with such a relentlessness that you have to rouse yourself to even notice it anymore — making us dumber and number and emptier at our core. If you support it, and Portnoy specifically, you are doing something wrong. It’s time to stop kidding ourselves. It’s certainly time I did.

What Fresh Hell Is Barstool Sports?