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Barstool Sports and the Identity Politics of Being Apolitical

Much as it did with Trump last November, the news media has been scrambling to make sense of Barstool Sports’ rapid ascent to one of the most beloved brands in the business. In particular, this question: How can a renegade media concern that’s so willfully, purposefully crude and unprofessional triumph in these delicate political times of ours?

The general answer is that Barstool has succeeded largely because of, not despite, its unapologetic lack of decorum. In a time of heightened sensitivity about what constitutes proper speech and behavior, Barstool has generated a substantial following by going in the opposite direction and being unabashedly itself — loud, boisterous, jocular, masculine and horny.

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But many bros love Barstool for what it isn’t, and by that, they mean that they love its (supposedly) apolitical take on the sports world. Barstool employee Noah Ives, a 21-year-old Syracuse grad, sums up Barstool’s populist appeal nicely in this New York Times Magazine profile on the burgeoning bro site.

In decades past, Ives might have spent his summers at ESPN headquarters in Bristol, Conn., coiling wires and fetching coffee. “ESPN was definitely on my mind when I got to college,” he told me. “But Barstool is just a cooler brand that people my age just respect more.” When I asked him what he meant by “respect,” Ives smirked and said: “The takes are just much more relatable. It’s like Pres [Barstool founder Dave Portnoy] says — Barstool is by the common man, for the common man.” He paused before adding: “ESPN is just spitting facts and political correctness.”

Later in the article, Portnoy says that for all the freedom the site allots its various personalities, the one topic Barstool bloggers and readers are both actively uninterested in is politics, a topic that’s infiltrated the sports world to an unprecedented degree in recent years due to the National Anthem protests, among other things.

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But Barstool isn’t apolitical, it’s anti-political, which is its own kind of political stance in our hyperpolitical social climate.

Make what you will of Colin Kaepernick and the legions of NFL players who have followed his lead and knelt during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and systemic racism, but the protest is brilliant in terms of the amount of discussion it’s provoked. For more than a year, conversation about the anthem protests have overshadowed the NFL itself — so much so that the controversy has divided the league’s owners, a group of white men who are usually united in their desire to protect and grow their sports empires, over how to address the issue.

All of this is uncomfortable to most sports fans, many of whom resent racial politics from infringing upon their enjoyment of NFL games, and some who view the protests as deeply offensive to the American military. For them, Barstool provides a haven from the endless back and forth over the meaning and efficacy of the anthem protests. And the NFL’s lingering domestic abuse problem. And concussions. And the inclusion of transgender people in sports. And college players being exploited by the NCAA. And the myriad other sports issues that involve larger social context.

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Barstool has a deeper political ideology than it lets on, though. It would be wrong to call it conservatism — many Barstool employees self-identify as liberal, and The New York Times grants that they indeed are. (Portnoy is an avid and outspoken Trump supporter, however.) But the Barstool ideology is liberal in the sense in that its adherents generally agree in principle with the values of freedom and equality. It’s a kind of moderate liberalism that’s exasperated by and consciously distances itself from what it perceives as an overly sensitive, overly political correct and overly unreasonable segment of left-wing American politics — the easily triggered.

Barstool loves to poke fun at people who use the term cultural appropriation; people who protest; radical feminism; white knights; or people who have no sense of humor.

Or as one of its writers laid out in one of the many defenses published on the site:

“Back when Barstool started out, everyone understood that this was a comedy website. People came here to get away from real life and read jokes. No matter how ridiculous the jokes, or over the top the take, it was understood by most that we are just here to make people laugh.

It’s been interesting to watch how things have progressed (or regressed) in the last couple of years. We get our site isn’t for everyone, and that’s sort of the entire point. … So it’s baffling that people come here and then cry about what they see. Just because you don’t appreciate a type of humor does not mean it’s offensive.”

This more than anything else is what Barstool stands for politically — the right to operate in its insular world of likeminded bros and offensive humor. Or boiled down to a single thesis: “Can you SJWs just chill the fuck out already with your moral grandstanding so we can all just enjoy the game?”

Who can really blame Barstool fans for looking for a refuge from our current news cycle? Staying up to date with U.S. and world news means constantly having to contemplate the threat of nuclear war, race wars, rampant sexual misconduct, police brutality and the threat of dying in a random mass shooting. It’s exhausting, and many people have established online communities in the past year for the sole purpose of providing a break from that dreariness.

But to say Barstool is apolitical is disingenuous. And Portnoy knows this. For all the controversy he generates, Portnoy has proven himself brilliant at identifying an underserved audience in the sports media market and delivering to them precisely what they want. On that count, he knows all too well that a combative, anti-PC, anti-moral grandstanding ethos is morphing into a political ideology unto itself—one that Barstool is both defining and capitalizing on.