Dennis Young: Barstool Sports' racism is finally catching up with it

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Dave Portnoy, Founder of Barstool Sports, onstage at The Barstool Party 2017 on Feb. 3, 2017 in Houston, Texas. - John Parra/Getty Images North America

NEW YORK — Last week, 2016 videos of Barstool founder Dave Portnoy rapping the n-word and saying that Colin Kaepernick “looks like an ISIS guy” resurfaced. Portnoy introduced the Kaepernick segment with “So, I’m going to say something racist,” then said a bunch of racist things.

In response, at least one Barstool employee quit: Streamer and esports personality Muj Fricke left the company Friday night. “I will never sell my soul for a check,” Fricke wrote. “How pathetic would I be if I continued to support and work for those whose beliefs so staunchly oppose my own?”

Fricke found a far cleaner solution than Eric “PFT Commenter” Sollenberger, who wrote a dithering blog expressing his displeasure with Portnoy but took no other concrete action.

In response to Fricke’s resignation, several high-profile NFL players said they supported him in his dispute against the company. Dolphins linebacker Kyle Van Noy, Bears running back Tarik Cohen, Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds, Cardinals receiver Christian Kirk and Bengals wide receiver John Ross all tweeted messages of support for Fricke.

Fricke “was the only reason why myself or the majority of the professional sports world did anything affiliated with Barstool esports,” Kirk said. “A true talent who stands for what’s right.”

Portnoy’s response (and that of Barstool CEO Erika Nardini) was to generally be defensive and petulant. “They’ve been trying to cancel me for two decades — I’m uncancellable,” Portnoy said. Barstool’s sexism has been out in the open for years, yet famous athletes and ESPN personalities continue to go on the company’s podcasts and streams. Will its open racism, which is driving away its own employees and the famous athletes that give the brand a sheen, make any difference?

“Good riddance, goodbye. I didn’t appreciate it,” Dan Katz said about Fricke’s departure Sunday night. Along with Sollenberger, Katz is the co-host of the massively popular Barstool podcast Pardon My Take. In June alone, NFL quarterbacks Matt Ryan and Blake Bortles have appeared on the podcast, as have celebrities Rob Lowe and Judd Apatow. SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt goes on the show regularly.

Fricke, who is white, is not the only Barstool employee to criticize Portnoy; podcaster Brandon “Black Brandon” Newman went back and forth with Portnoy on Twitter. Newman said he supported Fricke, Portnoy made fun of him, Newman said “I made Dave laugh w/o saying the N-word!,” Portnoy said, “If you truly think I’m racist you should quit.”

Portnoy’s bull-in-a-china-shop approach to labor law has gotten him in trouble already this year. In 2019, he tweeted that he would fire any employee who attempted to unionize. He eventually had to settle with the National Labor Relations Board, delete the union-busting tweets, and publicly promise to not do any more union-busting. I asked Matt Bruenig, the labor lawyer who filed the NLRB charges in that case, if Portnoy was violating employment law by telling Newman to quit if he thought Portnoy was racist.

“Under the Civil Rights Act (CRA) as enforced by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), employers cannot retaliate against employees who oppose, e.g. through complaining, a perceived violation of the law against racial discrimination in employment,” Bruenig said. The key questions here, according to Bruenig, would be if Newman was complaining about racial discrimination, and if Portnoy was threatening to retaliate against him.

“Racial discrimination includes the creation of a hostile work environment, such as through the frequent use of racial slurs in the workplace. Interpreting short tweets can be a bit difficult but arguably this one is a complaint about a racially hostile work environment,” Bruenig said. “Retaliation also includes abusive verbal behavior ‘that is reasonably likely to deter protected activity’ (see EEOC here), where protected activity’ includes complaining about racial discrimination,” he said. “Ultimately it would fall to a judge to make judgment calls.”

I asked Nardini if the company generally handled claims of racial discrimination by suggesting the claimant quit, or if Portnoy had ever been internally accused of racial or gender discrimination or been internally investigated for those things. She did not respond as of press time.

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