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 Soyaya 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.)
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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."
“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.