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Barstool Sports and the persistence of traditional masculinity in sports culture

“I think Barstool is a nostalgic callback to the idea that the more offensive you are, the more free you’re being," an expert on digital media and gender said.
Image: David Portnoy founded Barstool Sports in 2003--and since then, the company appears to be drifting away from its sports-centric roots to another focus: manliness.
David Portnoy founded Barstool Sports in 2003. Since then, the company appears to be drifting away from its sports-centric roots to another focus: manliness.Chelsea Stahl / NBC News; Getty Images

When the news broke Sept. 10 that a lawsuit had been filed against NFL star receiver Antonio Brown accusing him of rape, Barstool Sports, like many other websites, published an article about it. But it was the comments on that article that told the real story.

Two comments alone — “I hate this guy but I think this is all BS and some chick is trying to get paid” and “Most obvious extortion attempt I’ve ever seen” — racked up hundreds of “likes” on the sports and culture blog geared toward young men. A majority of replies to the article on Twitter elicited jokes about rape or crude remarks and captured a perspective popular with Barstool Sports' readers.

That was a direct and deliberate contrast to the ascendance of political correctness.

The current Congress is the most diverse in U.S. history, and American women have won more attention for sexual harassment issues in the years following the birth of the #MeToo movement. But Barstool Sports has found a base hungry for its politically incorrect content — all the while also creating a steady stream of controversy.

Just last month, Barstool Sports' founder and president, David Portnoy, made headlines when he threatened to fire employees “on the spot” for discussing unionization. Last week, the company announced it was moving some of its videos that violate Instagram’s terms of service to an app favored by the so-called alt-right.

Rather than being an errant blip amid an increasingly woke generation, Barstool Sports seems to exist as a parallel culture.

“Not only has it been parallel, I think a conservative, reactionary response to women increasing prominence and equality is institutionalized by a place like Barstool Sports,” said Soraya Chemaly, a women’s rights activist and the author of “Rage Becomes Her: The Power of Women’s Anger.” “I don’t have any sense that #MeToo or even Trump’s election was ever going to make a dent in that culture.”

Conservative ideology appears to be a core part of Barstool Sports — especially its portrayal of gender roles, with hypermasculine, sports-loving men and hypersexualized, submissive women. The site’s reinforcement of conservative American values is what makes its content stand out from its competitors, Marie Hardin, the dean of Penn State’s Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications, said.

“In many ways, Barstool has resisted some of the more progressive discourse around sports. And I think there’s a niche for that,” she said. “There’s a market there and they’re able to capture that.”

Portnoy founded Barstool Sports as a weekly New England sports-centric newspaper in 2003. From its beginning, the brand labeled itself as an outlet “by the common man, for the common man” and has, in recent years, ramped up its chauvinistic coverage of pop culture, memes and women. (See: Barstool Smokeshows, a subset of Barstool Sports that’s dedicated to posting hypersexualized photos of women.)

The company appears to be moving away from sports coverage and focusing more on manliness. (See: “Saturdays are for the boys,” a tweet from one of its contributors that went viral and became the company’s catchphrase to describe drunken debauchery.)

“I think Barstool is a nostalgic callback to the idea that the more offensive you are, the more free you’re being, and it’s also a kind of cultural preservation project for bros."

Lisa Nakamura

“I think Barstool is a nostalgic callback to the idea that the more offensive you are, the more free you’re being, and it’s also a kind of cultural preservation project for bros,” said Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, who studies the intersection of digital media and race, gender and sexuality.

Barstool Sports, Nakamura said, strikes a chord with its primary target audience — young white men — because it casts them as the “persecuted ones” of mainstream, politically correct culture. Men who feel disadvantaged by the world around them see the platform as a safe space where freedom of speech means voicing unpopular and sometimes offensive opinions without consequence.

“We will not bow down to the winds of PC culture whichever way they may blow,” Portnoy said in an email to NBC News. “If that makes us perceived as counter culture then so be it. I’d say we represent the silent majority. There is always a line that can’t be crossed. Anything that is said or written from a place of hate will never be acceptable behavior at Barstool.”

The niche for a conservative callback culture built around sports seems to be growing. In the past two years, in the midst of the #MeToo movement, Barstool Sports has almost doubled its Twitter following, according to Social Blade analytics, and now has almost 1.8 million followers. Over the past month, its account has gained about 1,700 followers a day.

Image: Barstool sports
A Barstool Sports truck is seen parked outside of Gillette Stadium prior to a New England Patriots game on Sept. 7, 2017, in Foxboro, Massachusetts.Adam Glanzman / Getty Images file

Portnoy’s Twitter following has also doubled in the past two years. The site’s main Instagram account now has more than 7 million followers. Barstool Sports also owns 38 podcasts, dozens of side Twitter and Instagram accounts and a growing women’s blog called Chicks, which brands itself as “One of the Boys, All for the Girls.”

Barstool Sports isn’t just about sports, and it never billed itself that way. But outside its sports coverage, Barstool has found itself entangled in controversies of its own — or Portnoy’s — doing.

Most recently, he tweeted about hating unions and threatened to fire any of his employees “on the spot” if they reached out to anyone for union information. Earlier this year, comedian Miel Bredouw documented her fight with Barstool Sports after she claimed it ripped off her content on Twitter, which she said eventually led to harassment from multiple company accounts.

Last year, several female reporters accused Portnoy and Barstool fans of verbal harassment, making light of sexual harassment and doxxing them.

“You can’t put Barstool in a box however hard you try,” Portnoy said in the email. “We’ve worked with 1000’s of women, and almost all of them will say it’s one of the most progressive job environments they’ve ever been in.”

“We have a primarily female leadership team, not because they are women but because they are the most qualified. We have 3 of the most successful female podcasts in the world,” he continued. “The facts just don’t support the narrative of those who hate us.”

The antics aren’t always without repercussions. Portnoy is now being investigated by the National Labor Relations Board for the tweet about unions. Two years ago, ESPN canceled its collaboration with Barstool Sports due to pushback from female employees after one episode of the TV show based on Barstool Sports’ popular podcast, “Pardon My Take.”

And just last week, it announced on social media that it would be moving some content to Telegram, an encrypted app that has been used by members of the “alt-right” when Facebook, Twitter and Instagram cracked down on its content.

"Our goal has, and always will be, to stay true to Barstool Sports and as a result, it means that we, too, will have an ever-changing set of content and ever-evolving set of platforms," Erika Nardini, the CEO of Barstool Sports, said in an email.

Marcus Messner, a professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, called Barstool Sports’ social media strategy “sophisticated” in achieving its goal: branding. That includes its move to Telegram.

“There’s always a new channel where the more outrageous content can be posted,” he said. “Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — they’ve received a lot of scrutiny over their misleading content, violent content, outrageous content, that users are flagging and that they’re going to take down. A more non-traditional platform like Barstool can just move to a different platform that won’t regulate it in its initial stages.”

So Barstool still rises. “Pardon My Take,” one of the most popular football podcasts, tops weekly charts on Apple and Spotify and hosts the biggest stars in the NFL, past and present. Former New England Patriots star Rob Gronkowski was on just last week.

“They will not have a reckoning until they no longer reflect a good portion of this country’s values,” Hardin, who has researched gender in sports since the late ’90s, said. “Is Barstool a reflection of our values or is it reinforcing our values? It reflects and reinforces — the only way Barstool could ever die is if it no longer reflects. But we’re not anywhere close to that as a culture.”

Introducing progressive ideas, she said, takes work when it comes to changing American sports culture, which is riddled with conservative values. Barstool Sports is just “amplifying what’s already there.”

“Barstool would not exist if we did not have a spectator sports culture that positioned men and women in a certain way, in a way that we really take for granted,” Hardin said. “So many people don’t even think about the signaling about gender that spectator sports do every weekend on television. Those are things we aren’t thinking about enough as a culture — and Barstool would not exist without that.”