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The Scarlet & Black

The Scarlet & Black

Rueter’s Digest: Barstool Sports and carving about an American cultural sports niche

Photo by Sarina Lincoln.

In an era of ever-shortening attention spans and instantaneous content, Barstool Sports is uniquely equipped to flourish. Launched online in 2007 and revamped in 2016, Barstool boasts an impressive 1.28 million Twitter followers and over 10 million unique page viewers per month. Many of these viewers are fiercely loyal fans (sometimes termed “stoolies”) who love anything and everything Barstool, from blogposts to podcasts, live shows to apparel. Even the most ardent opponent of Barstool must admit that they are awesome at what they do.

Their podcast, “Pardon My Take,” consistently outranks many larger sports and pop culture websites in positive ratings and downloads. They were one of the first websites to live-stream themselves watching sporting events, giving their fans a kind of “second-screen” viewing experience on Instagram, Facebook and Periscope.

Yet Barstool has had its share of detractors. In 2012, the website had to shut down some of its infamous “Blackout Parties,” events that allowed underage drinking and numerous instances of alleged assault, thereby opponents think it normalizes rape culture and trivializes women in its content.

In response to mounting allegations of sexism, Barstool founder and president Dave Portnoy published a defense of Barstool, lamenting what he saw as unfair judgement of the company, including charges of sexism.

“The author [of various pieces against Barstool] never bothers to reach out to any of the 100s of women we’ve worked with in the past 15 years,” wrote Portnoy. “Yeah at times I wish I said things differently, but my intent was always to make people laugh. There was never any malice behind anything I ever wrote or said.”

Portnoy’s defense of his website seems to hinge on two simple facts: he hires lots of women and he tries to be funny.

Barstool does hire women (their CEO is a woman). But the women they hire are mostly young, white and attractive. Unless Portnoy subscribes to a monolithic notion of womanhood, he surely cannot think that his subset of employees somehow represents all women, or worse, that it makes him and his site untouchable from charges of sexism. It is like Ted Cruz arguing that he can’t be racist because he has a bust of Martin Luther King, Jr. on his desk.

Portnoy’s second claim is a little more complicated. In a world becoming increasingly politically correct and trying to reconcile “impact” vs. “intent,” comedy seems muddled. But the fact that Portnoy seems unwilling to even listen to the voices of those impacted by his website makes his argument troubling. Intent and impact both should matter when engaging in social justice-oriented discourse, but I question when intent is privileged over the impact to such an extent that those impacted are laughed off or continually mocked (as happens on Barstool).

Barstool and Portnoy seem to champion the same kind of “political-incorrectness” that our current U.S. president does. But it would be wholly unfair to label or all of its consumers as “scum,” a charge Portnoy contends he must constantly refute.

Barstool Sports caters to and reflects a very real demographic of sports fans. These fans want to engage in “shoot-the-shit” conversations centered around sports, women and pop culture — what they see as “authentic” discourse. Whether one wants to be part of these conversation or thinks that these conversations should be more nuanced, Barstool undeniably has taken these conversations out of dorm rooms, sports bars and offices and into the light of day.

Furthermore, a holier-than-though approach to criticizing Barstool is unlikely to provoke any real reflection on the part of the site or its consumers, many of whom would probably feel attacked by individuals who probably similarly consume and love problematic things.

I don’t like Barstool and think it is demeaning to women. However, I also love TV shows that privilege heteronormativity, fetishize machismo and violence and promote unhealthy messages about body image. In fact, I would assert that nearly all of the content that we love also do stuff that we don’t agree with or that makes us uncomfortable.

Our consumption of problematic stuff doesn’t mean we are bad people, but rather that we are picking and choosing that which we can stomach and that which we cannot. We are constantly (and often subconsciously) reconciling the “impact” vs “intent” question whenever we open up Netflix, turn on a football game or scroll the Internet.

While I don’t think it is fair or wise to characterize Barstool as a website fueled simply by male chauvinism, I leave future critical consumers with a warning: if you are looking to Barstool for anything other than a brief chuckle, a meme-moment or faux-pornography, then you are going to be sorely disappointed.

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