The Media Column: Kayce Smith insists Barstool Sports isn't misogynistic

Alex Reimer
September 28, 2018 - 10:39 am

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The long-running debate surrounding Barstool Sports and its crude culture kicked into overdrive this week with the Daily Beast’s takedown of the now-$100 million media goliath. The article, titled “Inside Barstool Sports’ Culture of Online Hate,” chronicles the company’s history of offensive content and online harassment. While none of the information is particularly new, author Robert Silverman provides perhaps the most comprehensive look yet at founder Dave Portnoy’s proclivity for misogynistic humor –– “sexual assault is a gray area” –– and launching online campaigns against Barstool’s perceived foes, many of whom are women. Four female journalists spoke anonymously about their experiences covering Barstool, recounting Stoolies’ efforts to dox and intimidate them.

Predictably, the piece spurned widespread backlash in the Barstool community. Portnoy published his own missive striking back at the Daily Beast and CEO Erika Nardini, who was hired shortly after Barstool’s acquisition in 2016, also wrote an impassioned article defending the company’s culture. One of Nardini’s main contentions is how Barstool’s advocacy for its own female employees gets overlooked. The company employs 23 women, and most of them are in front-facing positions. 

“The women in content run their own shows and we build around them the same way we do anyone else here: take an idea, big or small, grab a camera or a computer, and run with it,” she writes. “The women in business run our business and contribute to the backbone of this company.”

One of Barstool’s most recent high-profile female hires, Kayce Smith, spent roughly one year in Boston before relocating. Smith, who worked for NBC Sports Boston from April 2017 until February, is now a multimedia star at Barstool. Most notably, she hosts a college football podcast with Johnny Manziel, “Comeback SZN.”

This week, Smith posted several strongly worded tweets supporting Barstool, including one where she lambasts female journalists who criticize other women for working there. I recently spoke with Smith about her experiences at Barstool, and why she feels compelled to defend Portnoy and Co. Some portions of the conversation have been edited for brevity:

Alex Reimer: What was appealing to you about Barstool?

Kayce Smith: The platform. It’s kind of the way everything is growing. The amount of people who pay attention to videos, like they’re some daily reality show, is incredible. With TV, radio and newspapers, the next way people consume entertainment is the Internet, and Barstool is bar none with how you reach that audience. So the platform was No. 1, but No. 2 was the freedom –– to be who I wanted to be. I loved working for NBC Sports Boston. I could never say a bad thing about working for that place. But I knew I could offer more than just sports –– whether it was being uncensored or growing something from the very beginning. That’s possible at Barstool. It’s a challenge, there’s no question about that. It’s a sink or swim kind of atmosphere. You’re not hired for one specific thing like you are on network television. It’s a challenge. But for me, somebody in my late 20s, why would I not take that? As a sideline reporter, I was told talk for 30 seconds and you’re done. Now I’m getting an opportunity to be with the biggest sports media Internet website in the world, and I have my own voice.

AR: I think Barstool is roughly analogous to ‘Kirk & Callahan,’ from the standpoint that you’re letting it all out there –– you’re talking about your personal life, sharing a lot about yourself, more uncensored. I’m getting that that’s something you really wanted to explore, which is the main reason you went over there?

KS: I think it’s just the best way to show what your personality is. You’re your real self at Barstool, whereas everywhere else you’re playing a part. That’s not a knock on being on TV –– but I can’t go on TV and go on a rant about how pissed I am that somebody did something in the office, whereas here I can. When you’re sitting at a bar with your friends, and the conversations you have when you’re drinking or angry or happy, this is the kind of stuff that would come out. That’s what Barstool is. We’re constantly being recorded; we’re constantly being on camera. And that’s cool, because it shows who you are. One of the struggles I had being a sideline reporter, was that people just didn’t know my personality. They saw me as a young blonde Texas girl who liked football. That’s a good thing in some eyes, but it’s also a detriment. So with Barstool, I was like, ‘Holy s—. I can actually be who I am. If you don’t like me, fine. But you’re not liking who I actually am as a person.’ Of course, that’s incredibly appealing to somebody who was kind of put in a box as a sideline reporter.

AR: Is there ever a time where you don’t wish the cameras were always on, and your dirty laundry is out there? Or are you comfortable with that?

KS: I’m comfortable with it, because I knew what I signed up for. And that’s the cool thing about working here. From the outside, everyone is like, ‘I can’t believe that’s how they treat their employees.’ And is everything perfect? No. There are days when you get frustrated and don't want cameras in your face. But everyone protects you here. I’ve never felt safer than I do now. That’s not knocking anything in Boston, but I feel like I can be myself and get to Dave and get to Erika (Nardini) immediately. And if you’re having a bad day and have a camera in your face, you can go up to somebody and say, ‘This is the way I feel.’ That’s who you are, and why the audience likes it. 

I know Dave has said a lot of things in the past –– on Twitter, on camera –– that are taken out of context, but for me, now that we do have them 24 hours per day, and everything I say is going to be what I mean, if I say something stupid, I can admit I f— up and made a mistake. But it’s still who I am personally, if that makes any sense.

AR: Yeah, it does. So this week, the Daily Beast had their story and there was lots of reaction. I notice you had a tweet that said, ‘I support every single female trying to make it in this industry. It’s not easy and every path is different. What I don’t support is women who publicly claim they feel the same way and privately talk shit because some females don’t fit their agenda. Hypocrisy at its finest.’ What exactly were you referring to?

KS: One of the things I’ve struggled with in my career is the whole feminism thing, like, ‘We want women to do whatever they want to do –– whether it’s in sports, or whatever the career path is –– women should get to choose what they want to do and go after it,’ but if that doesn’t fit a certain agenda, whether it’s political, or personal, or professional, I run into a lot of situations where women behind the scenes will be like, ‘I can’t believe this girl would choose that.’ The biggest thing I’ve noticed since I’ve come to Barstool, and I see it on Twitter, I see it from my co-workers at different networks, is people want to come out and say, ‘We’re fighting for women to do what they believe and we’re all for women making strides in the industry, but they can’t do it at Barstool.' I just don’t understand that. I don’t understand the thought process. You might not like what you read, and may not want to consume what we do, but you should be proud that a woman is at a company giving a strong female voice.

The reason I tweeted that the other day is, once that piece hit, I saw a lot of things on Twitter I just didn’t agree with. It’s the passive-aggressiveness of, ‘If a woman works there, she must be complicit and believe everything that’s being said is OK.’ That’s just not the case. Nobody has reached out to me and asked what I deal with on a day-to-day basis, which is why I’m happy you did. It’s just frustrating. You either support women 100 percent and want them to be strong and be themselves, or you don’t.

AR: So you think other women in the industry don’t respect you because you work for Barstool?

KS: I don’t think that’s fair. I don’t want to put words in anybody’s mouth. But I get a lot of questions: ‘You left network TV. Why would you go and work for somebody like Dave Portnoy?’ And anybody who hasn’t looked up Erika (Nardini), what she does, or seen how Dave has evolved, Barstool is so different than what it used to be. And I’ve said this before, and it’s the most important thing I can say: Just because I work at Barstool, it does not mean I have signed off on everything Dave has ever said –– or anybody in this company has ever said. I don’t have to agree with things that are on record just because I work here. Do I stand by who they are as people? Absolutely. Dave Portnoy is a great person to work for. He doesn’t treat women like s—, despite the popular belief. For some reason people lump you in. ‘If you’re a woman at Barstool, you must agree with something he said in 2009 that may or may not have been taken out of context.’ That’s the frustration I find. So it’s not disrespecting me, it’s more of, ‘Why would you work for Barstool?,’ without knowing what Barstool really is –– outside of the hit pieces.

AR: But you read a lot of the old stuff that Portony has written or said –– in the Daily Beast article, they brought up the old Blackout Parties, where he said, ‘I don’t condone rape, but if you’re a size 6 and wearing skinny jeans, you kind of deserve to be raped,’ and stuff like that. Do you think that’s getting taken out of context? What are your thoughts when you read things like that?

KS: I will be completely honest with you. When I took this job, I talked to him and Erika about some of these concerns –– not really concerns of my own, but concerns that were brought to me by people I know or people in the industry. Look, not every joke is going to land. Like I said, I don’t co-sign on anything that talks about rape. I don’t like any jokes about that. But I don’t understand –– and maybe this is just something because I’m trying to understand the landscape –– but people in comedy say stuff like that all of the time, musicians, and people sill consume their stuff. For example, Ice Cube is running around doing a media tour, and he has his past. So Dave has made jokes I don’t agree with –– I don’t like what he said about that. But I think there’s a difference between being a bad person and making a bad joke. And Dave, in a lot of his situations, it was a bad joke with bad timing, but he was just trying to make people laugh –– just like most entertainers. He’s not a journalist, he’s an entertainer.

AR: Right, but it’s not just one joke or comment. It’s making a series of these comments over many years.

KS: My question is, if anybody watches standup comedy, are they complicit in everything that comedian says? Or if they listen to rap –– that’s my thing. The biggest takeaway I had from Erika’s piece is, the people who want to dislike Barstool are never going to be swayed. If you don’t think Dave is a good person, you’re never going to believe me, anyway. I think the people who actually consume Barstool on a daily basis –– even if you don’t want to deal with Dave, if you just listen and read everybody else, PFT, ‘Pardon my Take’ –– there’s not a malicious intent to it. Again, Dave has said things I don’t agree with, but Dave in 2018 is saying, ‘I may have said things I don’t believe in in the past.’ He’s saying what he said may have been wrong, but he was being himself, and he’s built this for the last 15 years. Meanwhile, we have Deadspin, who has deleted their history from the last decade, making way worse jokes. Now they’re claiming they’re the gatekeepers of being responsible. Dave is real, he goes on the record and says he’s made mistakes. To me, I just don’t understand why people are holding Barstool to a different standard than other entertainers in the industry.

AR: I agree there’s lots of hypocrisy to it -– I saw the comments from the Deadspin editor, the rape joke he made. I think it’s always dangerous to stand on moral pedestals. I guess my thing with Barstool is, and this was in the Daily Beast article, too, is these online harassment campaigns. Dave was targeting Samantha Ponder, the four female journalists who spoke to the Daily Beast and said they’ve been doxed when reporting on Barstool. Do you think there’s a vitriolic aspect to Barstool that you don’t get elsewhere, or do you think that’s overblown? Like, when female journalists say, ‘We’re fearful to speak out on the record against Barstool, because of the harassment we’ll face,’ what are your thoughts when you hear stuff like that?

KS: First of all, I don’t agree with anybody getting harassed online. I’m a person who doesn’t think anybody should be bullied. I’ve actually been targeted myself. I would never say, ‘I want this person to feel like s—.’ That’s not who I am. When it comes to this stuff with Sam Ponder, and other people, I totally get where they’re coming from. The two things I can say is, not every person in this building agrees with that. There are on the record debates, –– even this week –– about how some of the big players in this company feel like online harassment should and shouldn’t be handled. Without a doubt, I hate online harassment, I hate online bullying. It’s not OK, which is why when I was accused of that earlier this week, it was like, ‘What are we doing here?’ I’m doing the complete opposite.

The other part of that is, a fan base that’s so crazy and wrapped up in everything we do, that is going to be a lot louder than the vocal minority of a smaller place.

AR: Right, right. So you say you’re against harassment, you’ve been targeted yourself. But Dave does seem to do a lot of that. So how do you balance that?

KS: I don’t think he does it unsolicited. I’ve never seen Dave go after somebody just for the sake of it. From what I see, and consumed as a fan and now as an employee, is he’s going after people who have gone after him first. If somebody can prove me wrong on that, maybe I can take that statement back. 

But the online (harassment), whether it’s to a female, male or company, has always been because something has been said to him that he doesn’t like. I’m not going to speak for him on what he’s going to do in the future, but he wrote a blog earlier this week –– and I think it’s a great blog –– about why he feels the need to defend himself, and he built this company from nothing 15 years ago. And if people want to take headlines of things he’s said, and make that as a human being who he is, I understand why he wants to defend himself.

AR: Oh, it’s a helluva story, no doubt. I interviewed Dave a couple of years ago for a Forbes piece. You have to respect the hustle, whether or not you like the content. But I guess my problem is, for example, this Deadspin journalist, Laura Wagner, writes a lot of stuff (about Barstool), and Dave will tweet that he wants to stick his tongue down her throat. There’s one thing about fighting back, and another thing about really being dirty about it, right? The question is, does it have to go to those lengths?

KS: Honestly, Alex, you’d have to talk to him. The biggest frustration I have with the whole thing –– all the hit pieces –– is it’s all about taking things in a vacuum. Laura Wagner, for example, constantly says things about Dave. She calls him the ‘sniffily raisin,’ she says all of these things about him. Somehow that’s OK, but when he comes back at her, it’s not. Again, I’m not going to sit here and defend every single thing that Dave Portnoy has ever done. I don’t have to, that’s not why I’m here. But at the same time, those things are different than the way women are treated in real life. ‘Barstool hates women,’ that’s an actual headline that’s on the Internet right now. ‘Barstool is misogynistic, everyone who’s at Barstool hates women, or hates black people, or hates minorities,’ and it’s like, hold on a minute. There’s a difference in taking a headline and taking a tweet, and actually talking to people who deal with it on a day-to-day basis.

AR: But you would agree, as a successful woman in the sports media industry, that women deal with a lot more s— than men do, right?

KS: Absolutely, yes.

AR: OK. So when you say, ‘Dave fights back equally,’ it’s not exactly equal, right? Because the amount of stuff women deal with is so much more exaggerated. 

KS: When I say, ‘Dave fights back equally,’ I mean if a man came out and called him a ‘sniffily raisin,’ he would go back after them. It’s not like he only targets women, is what I meant by that.

AR: I want to talk about Erika (Nardini’s) blog. Her main contention is that Barstool hires lots of women –– 23 female employees now –– and that’s always overlooked. And that seems like your contention, too –– that Barstool gives women the opportunity to grow and be themselves. But a company can employ women and have a misogynistic tone, right? Those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.

KS: When you say ‘misogynistic tone,’ go listen to sports talk radio. That’s my question. If people are actually consuming Barstool Sports, reading the blogs, listening to the podcasts, and they walk away saying, ‘That place is 100 percent misogynistic,’ then that’s their belief. But that’s just not the case. It’s not true.

AR: Yeah. But the thing is, here at WEEI, if our program director or general manager said something about one of our talents, like … what Dave said to Ria Ciuffo a few months ago, ‘You won’t be able to put your face in front of a camera for five years, because people will throw up,’ if our boss said that, he wouldn’t be our boss the next day. You know what I’m saying? So I think that’s what it comes back to as well with Dave.

KS: But that thing with Ria, she would go on record and say that headline was not the context he was saying it in. It did not land correctly, I will absolutely agree with you on that. But the conversation was said in jest. Ria came out right afterwards and said that. Again, it’s people holding Barstool to a different standard, because they’re not consuming the actual content. I can’t say it enough: ‘Do I agree with everything he says?’ No. But Dave is a good person and a good person to work for. To paint him in a light where he’s not, is not fair. Most of the people doing that have never spoken to him, or spoken to Erika, spoken to Big Cat, spoken to me, or anybody else who deals with it on a daily basis.

AR: Sure, Barstool has a lot of different content. And in talking to you Kayce, it’s a little analogous to me and Gerry (Callahan). Gerry has been great to me during my time at EEI, but I’ll be honest, a lot of my friends who listen to sports talk are not big Gerry Callahan fans. And one of the things I always tell them is, I don’t agree with everything he says, but also, you have to know him. That’s what I say to people: ‘You have to know him.’ He’s a good person.

KS: Yeah. You know what you’re getting into. If I did not feel like working for Barstool is not where I should be, I wouldn’t be here. I think that’s another misconception, that people only work at Barstool because they’re stuck there. Well, that’s not true fro me, because I’ve worked in network TV. I left a job that I love to take a leap of faith in my career to work for this company. So you’re right. The ‘Kirk & Callahan’ show is very picked apart, a lot of people have opinions on that show that you may not agree with, and it’s the same with Barstool. For people to say, ‘Barstool hates women,’ that’s just not the case. That’s not true. 

———————-

Fighting over credit for Patriots dirt: ESPN’s Adam Schefter rocked New England this week with his report about Rob Gronkowski threatening to retire over the offseason in order to avoid heading to the Lions. Amazingly, Gronk confirmed the story following the Patriots’ loss in Detroit, saying Tom Brady is his quarterback. 

The scoop and subsequent confirmation set off a firestorm, culminating in Chris Gronkowski spilling the tea about his “frustrated” brother in an interview with “Kirk & Callahan” Tuesday. But according to two plugged-in local Patriots beat guys, Schefter’s story is old news.

NFL Media’s Mike Giardi, who previously worked at NBC Sports Boston, reminded his followers this week that he and colleague Tom Curran were all over the Gronk trade and retirement story back in the spring. “The #Patriots also talked to the Titans about Gronk,” he tweeted. “And at the risk of sounding snarky, we reported this back in April, right @tomecurran? (it's not new news now). The threatened retirement. The "I'm committed to the Pats and Pats only." All of it. As you were.”

A look at the archives shows Giardi to be correct. Back in June, Curran said on TV the Patriots did talk to teams about trading Rob Gronkowski prior to the NFL Draft. Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio had a similar report, saying the Patriots called teams about Gronk three days before the draft. (Of course, Ken Laird was ahead of them all, talking about Gronk trade possibilities in early April.)

Though the Gronk trade stuff had been reported on before, it seemingly didn’t become official NFL record until Schefter weighed in. Unfortunately, that’s how it works when one Insider’s brand becomes so gargantuan. I can understand the frustration.

Timing is everything for Patriots: Last week, the Globe’s Ben Volin told me about the Patriots’ habit of releasing injury reports or news items shortly after their players and coaches are done talking for the day. We saw that happen again this week.

At roughly 12:00 p.m. Wednesday, word broke that running back Rex Burkhead and linebacker Ja’Whaun Bentley would be placed on IR this season. And when did Belichick’s Wednesday press conference wrap up, you ask? Just minutes beforehand. Funny how that works.

Albert Breer once again delivers pro-owner spin: The Panthers recently signed free agent safety Eric Reid, a Pro Bowl-caliber safety who also happened to protest during the national anthem and somehow didn’t have a job up until this week. In a tweet Thursday, Breer, the new head of Sports Illustrated’s MMQB, wrote that one of the “big questions” teams had about Reid was his desire to continue playing football. As noted in this space a couple of weeks ago, Breer surfaced the same explanation about Colin Kaepernick’s unemployment in 2017. 

Funny how the only players who seemingly must profess their desire to keep playing are those who kneel for racial justice. 

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