Reimer: ESPN-Barstool story exposes the hypocritical outraged masses

Alex Reimer
October 25, 2017 - 1:54 pm

USA Today Sports

ESPN took the moral high ground when it decided to end its partnership with Barstool Sports after just one episode of “Barstool Van Talk.” That was a mistake. Companies with prolonged problems related to sexual misconduct in the workplace shouldn’t throw stones. 

In a statement, ESPN president John Skipper said he “erred” in thinking the WorldWide Leader could separate itself from the smutty Barstool brand. It’s apparent Skipper succumbed to internal pressure, because he praised the show’s two hosts, Dan “Big Cat” Katz and PFT Commenter, for delivering the product they promised. 

When the ESPN and Barstool agreement was announced two weeks ago, the pitchfork-wielding masses on social media condemned the world’s largest sports network for doing business with Barstool. The loudest voice was ESPN host Sam Ponder, who publicly went after Barstool one day before the program’s debut. Three years ago, founder David Portnoy belittled her in a sexist rant, demanding she “slut it up” and “be sexy.” 

The words were harsh, and as Portnoy acknowledged on “Kirk & Callahan” this week, Ponder has every right to despise the company. But making a public moral stand may have been a mistake. Ponder used to routinely traffic in off-color humor on her Twitter feed, including one tweet in 2010, when she joked about her family being “sexist, racist and a little redneck.”

Ponder, 31, sent that tweet when she was 24 years old. It doesn’t make her a bad person. But it’s a reminder that most people use offensive language and tell crude jokes from time to time. Throughout this entire episode, the self-proclaimed guardians of decency have railed against Barstool Sports, only to have their vulgar pasts thrown back in their faces.

ESPN host and columnist Sarah Spain, for example, reportedly campaigned privately for ESPN to disassociate itself with Barstool. But on Tuesday, she was exposed as a fraud. Jets reporter Jenn Sterger, who allegedly received unsolicited raunchy texts from Brett Favre nearly 10 years ago, accused Spain of dismissing her when the scandal first broke. Portnoy dug up an old column from Spain on espnW, in which she appeared to defend Favre. 

“I’d bet the situation wasn’t nearly as one-sided as (Sterger) purports it to be,” Spain wrote. “I just don’t see how Favre could ask her out, get denied and decide the next logical step would be to text her the contents of his Wranglers.” 

That’s right: Sarah Spain, the star of the “#MoreThanMean” campaign was victim blaming. If somebody did that to Sterger today, she would probably be apoplectic, and rightfully so.

Spain apologized to Sterger and said she’s changed her thinking. Sterger also uncovered an old tweet from Ponder, in which she said Sterger had “big boobs.”

Words mean little without intent. Barstool, which identifies itself as a comedic and satirical brand, often pushes the line. The content isn’t for everybody, and is certainly offensive at times. But that’s not a cardinal sin. The outrage should be reserved for those who act upon their perverted predilections -– not bloggers who tell dirty jokes.

ESPN has dealt with numerous sexual harassment cases throughout its nearly 40-year history. As detailed in James Andrew Miller’s oral history of ESPN, “Those Guys Have All the Fun,” the network used to be infamous for its employees’ rampant sexual misconduct. Mike Tirico was perhaps the worst offender. He routinely stalked women outside of work, such as when he allegedly followed a female producer on the highway and unsuccessfully tried to get her to pull over. 

Numerous ESPN personalities, from Sean Salisbury to Harold Reynolds to Steve Phillips, have been fired for inappropriate conduct with female employees. The company also quietly settled a sexual harassment case involving Chris Berman and a makeup artist a few years back.

While Sterger hit individual ESPN personalities Tuesday, her primary focus was on the company culture as a whole. She relayed two stories about ESPN management subjecting her to sexual harassment last decade. “Since we are being honest, I will say this: I HATE how Barstool Sports treats women. But the other side is JUST as bad,” she wrote.

Sterger, 33, says she traveled to Charlotte in order to test a show for ESPN when she was 23 years old. Once the test was over, she says an ESPN employee coerced her into joining him at a strip club, where her male colleagues were receiving lap dances. 

The following year, Sterger says she was invited to visit ESPN’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn. She says the same unnamed employee, who was now in a management position, asked her sexually suggestive questions and bragged about women he had slept with. 

“I wasn’t asked a single question about goals or what I was looking for career wise,” she said. “He still works there. He’s still gainfully employed. He’s a decisions maker there,” Sterger wrote. “I later found out through a friend that works there that they only brought me in to show his coworkers I was ‘just as f--kable in person as I was in pictures.’ That and he insinuated he and I had hooked up... Which NEVER happened.”

In a statement, ESPN says it has no recollection of the incidents Sterger referenced. 

It would be ironic if that unnamed executive played a role in Barstool’s ESPN cancellation, but with the way this story has unfolded, it wouldn’t be surprising. The hypocrisy is mystifying.

Barstool, like some of the ESPN employees who pushed against it, has written some mean words on the Internet. But words are nothing without action. And the reported conduct towards women at ESPN has been abhorrent at various times throughout its history. 

It’s not hard to figure out what the real issue is here. 

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