Photo By: Tom Briglia/WireImage via Getty Images
CONTENT WARNING: This article contains references to sexual assault, homophobia, racism, and misogyny.
In 2003 Dave Portnoy founded a print publication called Barstool Sports; in 2007 it launched on the Internet gaining a following of frat-stars, wannabe frat-stars, and 27-year-olds trying to relive their glory days as frat-stars.
The ubiquity of Barstool Sports is undeniable, especially on college campuses. Walk into any residence building and you’re almost guaranteed to see a massive red, white, and blue striped flag emblazoned with the words, “Saturdays Are For The Boys.” That’s Barstool. Take a scroll through Instagram and stop at the first video of some dude getting hit in the nuts and odds are, Barstool posted that too.
My issue with them though is that what is often brushed aside as “harmless fun” from Barstool is way more insidious than just jokes made in poor taste.
Barstool Sports generates a particular kind of controversy on the internet. An on-air personality will say something absolutely vile and reprehensible, like the time that Portnoy said that women who wear skinny jeans “kind of deserve,” to be sexually assaulted.
Then, Barstool Sports will come out and say that it was just a joke and there’s no need to be offended, Dave Portnoy doesn’t actually think that you can invite sexual assault with a tight pair of pants. Then they’ll either refuse to apologize or release an, “I’m sorry you were offended,” apology that’s so bad they shouldn’t have bothered in the first place. That formula goes for misogyny, homophobia, transphobia and some truly disgusting displays of racism from individuals and the company as a whole.
It’s not “just a joke,” when several employees of colour quit because they no longer feel comfortable working for the company. It’s especially not “just a joke,” when Portnoy’s response to racist videos and content resurfacing in early 2020 was to say, “they’ve been trying to cancel me for two decades — I’m uncancellable.”
More recently, Barstool will weaponize their legion of passionate fans to attack anyone who disagrees with them. Public figures who disagree with Portnoy are treated to the company’s signature online scorched earth campaigns. It’s not that Barstool always outright tells their millions of followers to go out and harass their perceived enemies, but they sure don’t tell them to stop. They seem to feel a sick and twisted kind of glee when it happens, which only serves to encourage more of it in the future.
It’s not just big name broadcast journalists who get this kind of treatment, it’s anyone on the internet who dares to point out Barstool’s misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, racism and general bigotry. One simply has to tweet something like, “I think Dave Portnoy is an idiot and Barstool is bad,” and it’s almost guaranteed that they’ll get some avid Barstool fan in their mentions or their DMs defending the honour of a guy who will probably never know they exist.
The kind of behaviour that is “joked” about, encouraged and even demonstrated on Barstool Sports and their associated brands is the last thing that college and university campuses need to be encouraging. It’s not just the flags and the social media choices of individual students, but it’s clubs and organizations that have capitalized on the well known branding of Barstool to promote events.
In the States, Barstool has been announced to be sponsoring and broadcasting NCAA events. With the NCAA making the decision to allow their athletes to profit off of their own names, images, and likenesses (NIL) many athletes have signed deals with Barstool. Although some schools like the University of Louisville have instructed student athletes to stop doing business with the company (Barstool Sports doesn’t comply with UofL policy) there are many more schools who are fine with it or even encouraging it.
Brock University isn’t innocent in all this. Though no Brock Badgers varsity athlete is likely to score an endorsement deal with the company, they’ve capitalized on the popular “Saturdays are For The Boys,” branding on more than one occasion. As recently as 2018, they’ve posted a video to their official Facebook page with the caption, “Saturdays are for the Badgers,” where a few students can be seen waving the infamous Barstool-branded flags at Badgers games. By 2018, Barstool’s particular brand of online misbehaviour was well known and documented, there’s really no excuse.
Although not endorsed by the University, there is an Instagram account that serves as Brock’s “Barstool affiliate,” that posts videos submitted by Brock students. It has over 1,500 followers, so while the University might not endorse it, it’s clear that at least some of the students do. Other Canadian universities have similar affiliate pages with even more followers. They post similar content, with some of them borrowing Barstool’s “smokeshow of the day,” schtick to post pictures of female students to their stories.
This isn’t a tirade against partying or having a good time and posting it on the internet — most of the time that is relatively harmless (but sometimes stupid) fun. It’s the way Barstool Sports in particular capitalizes on university party culture to create a kind of “guys will be guys” bigotry that’s dangerously prevalent on college and university campuses in North America.
In July of 2016, Erika Nardini was hired to take over as Barstool’s CEO. Portnoy remains an associated personality, but Nardini is the face of the business side of the company. A popular refrain from Barstool’s numerous defenders is that they aren’t sexist anymore, because they have a female CEO. One needs to look no further than some of the heinous things said about sex and relationships on Call Her Daddy, Barstool’s attempt to create a podcast to engage with college-aged women, to know that women can absolutely be complicit in misogyny and bigotry.
Nardini has the same pattern of behaviour as Portnoy when it comes to weaponizing her followers to attack the people she disagrees with. When it came down to her becoming the CEO, a position she beat out 74 men for, Nardini herself has admitted that one of the reasons she got the job was her willingness to look past Barstool’s behaviour.
In an interview with Business Insider, Nardini said, “At the end of the interview, he [Portnoy] said, ‘You’re the only one that didn’t ask me about the girls. You’re the only one that didn’t ask or give an opinion that Barstool needed to shut down ‘Smokeshow of the Day’ or this that or the other thing or the history of Barstool or ‘The skeletons and controversies in Barstool’s past are innumerable.’”
She went on to say that she didn’t ask about the company’s history because it was part of the brand, and if anything, she wanted to, “make that thing become and evolve into something much bigger and to frankly preserve the heart of the relationship between Barstool and its fans.”
It wasn’t just Nardini’s business acumen that got her in with the organization, but her willingness to look past Barstool’s behaviour and to not only allow, but to encourage it to continue. The kind of culture that Barstool creates, at the end of the day, isn’t one that’s going to hurt Nardini particularly badly. She’s rich, white, and well-established in her field and she seems to have no problem throwing other women under the bus to get what she wants. Nardini doesn’t just turn a blind eye to the misbehaviour of Barstool and its fans, but she encourages it, participates in it and uses it as part of the company’s marketing strategy.
The famous personalities at Barstool Sports are able to get away with the things they do because there is no one who tells them that they can’t. Internal leadership at the company clearly doesn’t view “controversy” as a detriment and it seems pretty likely that they might even consider it an asset.
The thing about Barstool is that they can get away with this kind of behaviour because consumers allow it to continue. It’s not just the hardcore fans, because for every dude fighting for Dave Portnoy’s life in the comments section, there’s a guy who just thinks a “Saturdays are For the Boys” flag is kind of funny, or someone who follows Barstool for the memes and videos, but doesn’t really pay attention to what any of the personalities are saying. For every Erika Nardini, there are thousands of college girls wearing Call Her Daddy hoodies who’ve been tricked into thinking that a podcast that encourages them to know whether they’re a one or a 10, and to perform sexually to make up for a low score, is actually some kind of feminist rallying cry.
Most of Barstool’s content is just stolen memes and videos that aren’t that funny in the first place, but that seems harmless enough to a casual follower.
It might seem small and like it’s not that big of a deal, but every time someone clicks on a link or shares a video from Barstool Sports it gives them the engagement and revenue they need to continue to perpetuate bigotry while encouraging their followers to do the same.
The main issue with Barstool though is that they have an army of followers, who for whatever reason think that the people they see on camera are cool, they model their behaviour after those people, and that has real-life tangible effects, especially on campuses where Barstool is ridiculously popular.
Taking down your “Saturdays are for the Boys” flag is more than just getting rid of the ugliest and most immature piece of dorm room decor you could possibly own, it’s also taking down a symbol of racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, general bigotry.
By sharing, following and otherwise engaging with Barstool and their affiliated accounts and products, students are complicit. It’s not just a joke, it’s not just a flag and it’s not just a funny video of someone jumping through a folding table. It’s a company that actively encourages the kind of behaviour that makes university campuses unsafe for so many people.