Researchers explore the racial and gender politics of Barstool Sports

Kingston, R.I. — Nov. 22, 2022 — In just 20 years, Barstool Sports has grown from a small fantasy sports and gambling blog to a digital media and lifestyle behemoth that boasts $200 million in annual revenue. It’s also a means of mainstreaming racial exclusion and white-male dominance in a way that parallels the recent resurgence of white nationalism in the U.S., according to research by two University of Rhode Island professors.

In an article published in the Sociology of Sport Journal, professors Kyle Kusz and Matthew Hodler argue that Barstool creates a “safe space for young white men” in which they can “feel free to do ‘whatever the f— they want’ without guilt, constraint, apology, or penalty.” That exercise of white prerogative, the researchers say, bears similarity to the ways in which groups like the Proud Boys seek to defend white men from “social justice warriors” and “woke mobs.”

Kusz, a professor of English and gender and women’s studies, and Hodler, an assistant professor of communication studies and sports media, are not the first to call out Barstool’s racial and gender politics. But many prior critiques, Kusz says, have been directed specifically at David Portnoy, the company’s founder and figurehead, who has appeared in pictures with a person in blackface and made racially charged comments about former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Kusz and Hodler wanted to look at Barstool as an entity rather than just at Portnoy.

“We wanted to go a little deeper than these isolated instances,” Kusz said. “We’re trying to offer a more systemic critique of how racial logics operate within Barstool.”

Hodler says the article was, in part, an effort to take a close look at a media company that’s popular among some of his students, particularly those in his sports media classes.

“We saw a lot of our students liking Barstool seemingly uncritically,” Hodler said. “We were curious, as I think any good instructor should be, about what our students were interested in. We had seen these stories in Media Matters and The New York Times talking about racism and sexism at Barstool, but we wanted to look at ‘the how’—exactly how these racial politics work through the site and through the company.”

Kusz and Hodler focused their critique on a 15-part documentary video series broadcast on Barstool’s website and YouTube channel. The series is a useful means of understanding Barstool, the researchers say, because it’s the company’s own representation of its origins and a projection of how it would like to be perceived. Despite Barstool’s assertions that it’s apolitical, the documentary series seems to wear its association with the political right on its sleeve. Portnoy is introduced in the series’ first episode through an audio clip of Tucker Carlson, the bombastic Fox News pundit often accused of trafficking in white nationalist ideas.

The series goes on to document a booze-soaked tour of college football powerhouses in the American South dubbed the “Dixie Tour”—which took place at a time when many were protesting the continued use of Confederate symbols in American public life. Barstool’s Dixie Tour footage repeatedly showed conspicuously all-white crowds coupled with soundtracks featuring Black hip-hop artists—an effort to “to embrace Black culture without Black people,” the researchers write. In doing so, Barstool is able feign racial colorblindness while simultaneously associating its brand with Confederate symbolism.

Another installment of Barstool’s series chronicles what became known as “Howitzergate,” an incident in which Portnoy posted a picture on his blog of Tom Brady’s naked son with a comment about his genitals. Portnoy removed the image at the request of the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office but continued to defend the post as merely a joke. The documentary episode relentlessly lauds Portnoy’s defiance in the face of controversy and authority.

“The State in that story is represented through this woman prosecutor,” Kusz said, “as a feminizing and feminist force who is portrayed as trying to take the fun away from these white guys who are just trying to have a laugh with their bros—even though that fun was through the sexualization of a two-year-old.”

Kusz points out that this logic parallels a popular right-wing belief, as Senator Rick Scott puts it, that there is a “militant left [who] now controls the entire federal government, the news media, academia, Hollywood, and most corporate boardrooms – but they want more. They are redefining America and silencing their opponents.”

Not only does Barstool consistently produce all-white social worlds where white men acting like ‘bros’ run the show, but Barstool’s use of humor as a shield mirrors groups like the Proud Boys, “who use ironic and satirical humor to draw aggrieved whites to their projects,” Kusz and Hodler write. At the same time, the documentary’s lionization of Portnoy’s defiance also bears similarity to the Proud Boys, who “imagine themselves as rebellious, countercultural ‘disruptors’” crusading against political correctness.

All of this, the researchers conclude, helps create an unspoken link between Barstool and the far-right ideologies espoused by more overtly political groups like the Proud Boys. Kusz and Hodler say they realize that their analysis may put them at odds with legions of fans who see no such racial politics in what Barstool does.

“The reason I think a lot of people have a hard time seeing Barstool as this purveyor of white supremacy is that the logics of racial segregation are so normal to most white people, especially white people who grow up in upper middle-class places,” Kusz said. “But, after talking with students about Barstool, it became clear to us that many didn’t seem to recognize how the company consistently creates racially segregated spaces organized around satisfying some young white men’s desire to feel like big men.”

The researchers hope the piece will help people to see the way in which far-right ideas and values are seeping into mainstream media spaces, including those of sport media.