Dave Portnoy has been in a celebratory mood of late.
Barstool Sports, the satirical men’s lifestyle blog he founded in 2003, was acquired by Penn National Gaming, a regional gambling provider, on Jan. 29. The deal upped Barstool’s estimated value from $25 million to $450 million. Penn currently owns 36 percent of the company, at a cost of $163 million, and will be upping its investment to 50 percent over the next three years, all of which has made Portnoy a very wealthy man. But the financial windfall apparently required Barstool to sand down some of its rougher edges, at least according to Penn Gaming.
Eric Schippers, Penn National’s senior vice president, discussed the “guardrails” Barstool was implementing in an email interview with BillyPenn.com.
“We have done our due diligence and are confident that [Barstool Sports] understands the importance of our new relationship and has the right guardrails in place to ensure that their comments won’t negatively reflect on PENN or the gaming industry in general,” said Schippers.
Via email, Schippers told The Daily Beast that Penn National does not and would not be exercising any editorial control over content. What’s more, the guardrails erected by Barstool will prohibit “language that encourages underage gambling, illegal bets, or comments that might be deemed as harassment or discrimination of women or minorities, for example."
The BillyPenn article was published on the morning of February 24. But no less than a half-hour later, Portnoy riled up his 1.2-million Twitter followers, putting a target on the back of a veteran NASCAR beat reporter who had the temerity to tweet a single critical sentence about Barstool.
At 9:07 a.m., Portnoy issued a one-word command to an employee he hired specifically to go after people online: “ATTACK!!!!”—an act that certainly could be “deemed as harassment.” And so, for most of Monday, Jim Utter, a 50-year-old NASCAR reporter for motorsports.com, was bombarded with tweets from Portnoy, the employee in question, and a swarm of Stoolies. Coming from a site that has repeatedly denied that it encourages harassment campaigns—even one like this, which Barstool framed as a joke—Portnoy’s recent actions indicate that certain aspects of his and the site’s behavior seem immutable, no matter what their new corporate gambling partners say about guardrails.
When asked if what transpired on Monday ran afoul of the anti-harassment portion of the guardrails, Schnipper deflected: “Again, we have no editorial control over content, and I’m not going to comment on their content.”
Utter incurred Barstool’s wrath late Sunday night while he was in the media center covering the NASCAR Cup Series in Las Vegas. Top driver Joey Logano was giving a press conference following his victory, and Utter overheard an unknown reporter ask Logano a rambling, nonsensical question. Utter, who’d been live-tweeting the race, tweeted: “What the hell is going on in the media center?????”
Pressed online for additional context or an explanation, as a joke, Utter was dismissive of and somewhat snide towards Barstool. “Some whackjob asked some ridiculous question to Joey Logano,” he wrote. “Probably a Barstool thing.”
It’s unclear how it came to their attention, but Barstool’s racing-centric Twitter account quote-tweeted Utter’s jibe a little over an hour later. Portnoy weighed in at 8:20 a.m., inviting Utter to appear on a Barstool podcast, “so I can emasculate you and you can beg for forgiveness,” he wrote, adding that no Barstool personalities attended the Las Vegas event.
Enter Vincent LeVine. The sexagenerian former high-school plumbing teacher from Norton, Massachusetts who goes by “Vindog” gained a small measure of viral fame in 2019 when his son created a short video titled “My Dad, the Facebook Addict.” The film documented his father’s extensive use of the platform, and LeVine boasted of a wide and varied collection of memes which he uses to “destroy” people or at least make them bow before his superior memetic prowess.
“I just keep memeing them to death until they just surrender because they just can’t do it anymore,” he said, grinning and directly addressing the camera. “They’ll come rapidly, and you’ll be overwhelmed.”
In January, Portnoy announced that LeVine was coming to work for him. As he put it, tongue firmly in cheek, by doing so Barstool had “acquired an online Nuclear Bomb,” and a “gift to the Stoolies.” LeVine started full-time earlier this month, and in that time he’s written a handful of blogs. His main function, though, seems to be blitzing people who Portnoy wants to go after with memes.
Once he’d gotten the go-ahead from Portnoy on Monday morning, LeVine began tweeting at Utter with videos he’d cobbled together, plastering on cut-out photos of his and Utter’s head. Seven clips were posted over a 20-minute span. They show LeVine hitting Utter with a tetherball, throwing his severed head down a flight of stairs, dunking on him, dropping an elbow on him in a wrestling ring, and so on. Naturally, Portnoy gave LeVine a major signal boost, and other Barstool employees piled on.
Reached for comment and prior to publication, Portnoy tweeted out a screenshot of the questions sent by The Daily Beast. (As of late Tuesday night, it became his pinned tweet.) In his email, Portnoy confirmed that he hired LeVine, the “56 year old viral sensation,” to “meme people to death who attack us. He is the best in the business.” (LeVine is 63, per LeVine.)
“He is most likely going to meme you to death when you publish this article,” Portnoy said, aping the dialogue from LeVine in the original viral documentary. “He just has memes you don’t have. It will be over before you even know what happened. Death by memes.”
If it isn’t entirely clear at this point, this is all intended to be a joke.
The harassment and implications of violence don’t constitute real harassment, you see. They’re just chuckling at and with the suburban dad whose computer is well-stocked with folders of clunky, hand-made GIFs and who specializes in memeing people to oblivion. The declarations of total victory and promised destruction of their foes, too, are jokes, if doused in buckets of kayfabe. Take the quick triumphalist recap posted on the site Monday morning by Matthew “Uncle Chaps” Cothron, which was headlined: “Dave Portnoy Has UNLEASHED The Vindog On Motorsport.com's Jim Utter: It's An Utter Bloodbath With Targeted Memes,” for example, or LeVine's Tuesday blog similarly devoted to crowing about his efforts.
Of course, this has been Barstool’s standard response when charged that they’ve peddled misogyny and racism, or engaged in sexual harassment: It’s just satire; edgy jokes that no one should take too seriously. Or, as CEO Erika Nardini put it, they are “pushing the boundaries of what is currently politically correct in the effort to be funny” but none of it is borne out of a malicious intent. (Nardini did not respond to an emailed request for comment.)
By hiring and deploying LeVine, with a wink and a nod Portnoy can continue to go after people online, and has his very own online horde chomping at the bit, while also mocking and downplaying the notion he’s doing exactly that. Then the entire grim cycle is turned into content.
Difficult-to-pin-down comedy is a hallmark of extremely online communities, and often reactionary ones. They traffic in a brand of irony-rich humor which exists in a “frustrating quantum state,” as Kevin Roose wrote in The New York Times—simultaneously glib and yet deadly straight-faced, giving the joke-teller license to flip between those extremities at a moment’s notice. Intellectually dishonest or not, it’s a highly effective means of avoiding responsibility, claiming victimhood, smearing the media, and dismissing critics as being insufferably uptight.
You can see this dynamic play out in Portnoy’s shifting tone throughout Monday. When other NASCAR reporters began to take issue with how Utter was being treated and noted that this is far from the first time Barstool has engaged in this type of activity, he struck a pose of snarling defiance.
When politely asked if he might call off the dogs, Portnoy refused.
Then Portnoy doubled down on the notion that Utter’s tossed-off tweet demanded this entirely disproportionate response—and he’d do the same going forward.
Nardini in 2017 tweeted that the site has a “zero tolerance harassment policy,” and well-known Barstool podcasters Dan “Big Cat” Katz and Eric “PFT Commenter” Sollenberger have made it quite clear the last thing they want is anyone taking up arms on their behalf, openly pleading for an end to the endless online battles which they claim tar the site as a whole. Still, they, Portnoy, and Nardini have uniformly pinned the blame for the harassment on a “small minority” of Barstool’s fans who “ruin it for everyone” and “take it too far.”
Stoolies, though, didn’t heed Katz and Sollenberger’s advice when it came to Utter, the NASCAR beat reporter.
Barstool, by their and Penn National’s calculations, attracts a large-scale audience, thanks in no small part to popular and successful podcasts and more than 700 social media accounts. Even a tiny percentage of bad apples, then, can make someone’s life miserable, regardless of whether the initial impetus was a comedic bit. And at a certain pitch and volume, it’s almost impossible to tell the difference between laughter and screaming.
Alanis King is the associate editor of transportation at Business Insider. Despite being a “huge fan” of NASCAR, as a woman writing about motor racing and the automobile industry, she’s no stranger to emailed threats like “You’re a cunt,” and, “I hope you get terminal cancer,” she told The Daily Beast in a phone interview.
“I knew what I was getting into if I was going to be a woman posting opinions on the internet. It’s just what happens, unfortunately.”
Last August, King extensively reported on the Barstool-NASCAR partnership for Jalopnik. Delving into Barstool required additional and, by her estimation, “extensive” security measures. “You have to prepare to get doxxed and you have to prepare for Portnoy to see it and send his people after you,” said King. (Prior to publication of the first story by The Daily Beast about Barstool, Portnoy tweeted out this reporter’s cell-phone number.) Keeping her mother safeguarded was King’s first priority, which meant removing as much personal information as she could from the internet and locking down her mother’s Facebook page. Should her mother get roped into this, “that would be horrifying to me,” she said.
King, too, saw Stoolies peppering her mentions after she’d tweeted about Utter. Late Monday night, every time she looked down at her phone, she’d see another “20 notifications” and when she did get around to opening up her computer, it would “explode with Barstool people,” she said with a grim laugh. (A thread on the Barstool subreddit about King, posted on Monday, had received more than 90 comments as of this writing.)
More concerning, however, than the deluge of insults and clown emojis sent her way—which at this point causes her to roll her eyes—King pointed to NASCAR’s ongoing radio silence.
Over the last two decades, NASCAR has seen a sharp decline in attendance, leaving them with a largely older and whiter fanbase. Barstool provided access to a different and potentially profitable consumer of their product. As first reported by Sports Business Journal, NASCAR agreed to a paid media buy with the site in February 2019. (The partnership was recently extended for an additional year.)
In exchange, Barstool would promote NASCAR events, offer ticket packages, and promote NASCAR-centric content; Portnoy and others would make appearances at high-profile races, including the Daytona 500, and more. “NASCAR wanted to attract a younger crowd, and saw that Barstool had captured that demographic,” King said. “I don’t know if they quite knew what they were getting into. But once they were told what they were getting into, they ignored it.”
Prior to publishing her story, King sent a list of questions to NASCAR documenting the Barstool’s lengthy and infamous history. NASCAR did not respond.
Shortly thereafter, when King got the same PR flack on the phone for a subsequent story, she again asked about Barstool and finally was told, “No comment.”
NASCAR also did not respond to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.
For Utter’s part, he’s done his best to avoid the entire online squabble. Reached by phone, he said turning off Twitter notifications allowed him a measure of blissful ignorance while he focused on his work and other tasks at hand. He has no plans to respond to any of Portnoy’s provocations, nor has he contacted NASCAR to complain.
Prior to Monday, Utter didn’t know that much about Barstool. While he’d heard about the harassment and his general impression was that they were “shock jocks,” he said he had never interacted with anyone from Barstool, though he’d seen them at NASCAR events before. (In a tweet, Portnoy hinted at a possible future face-to-face meeting of some sort.)
Utter has gotten into his share of online squabbles, too, and said he doesn’t really mind if people disagree with his opinions or his reporting. This, however, was unlike anything he’d experienced before.
“I’m so in awe that three words got them so bent out of shape,” Utter said. “I thought they were stronger people. They’ve certainly heard worse things said about them.”