Inside OutKick, the Right-Wing Sports Site Pushing COVID Trutherism
Move over, Fox News, there’s a new bullshit-peddler in town—and it’s a sports website created by a Fox Sports personality.
After four and a half seemingly endless months, sports are finally returning, but not in a way that resembles anything seen before. The semi-permeable bubbles have been erected, and games are being broadcast from uncanny valley-like fan-free stadiums, even while COVID-19 cases continue to spike across the country, thanks to the ongoing and utterly botched response by the federal government in its zeal to reopen.
In a vacuum, it makes perfect sense, then, that a website which ostensibly covers sports would bring a medical professional or scientist on board to unpack all the possible pitfalls and still-present obstacles.
Ideally this person would be well-versed in testing protocols or the potential for community spread, or even the ethics of a patently unessential workforce consuming desperately needed medical supplies. But OutKick.com, the 9-year-old website founded by Fox Sports personality Clay Travis, hasn’t enlisted the services of an epidemiologist, virologist, or medical ethicist. Instead, they hired Dr. David J. Chao, a disgraced former NFL team doctor with a wide array of alleged ethical violations—including a bevy of medical lawsuits and six-figure settlements, probations, accusations of “gross negligence,” and DUIs—dotting his résumé.
None of this information appears anywhere on OutKick—an editorial choice that is very much in line with the career pivot the orthopedic surgeon has undertaken since exiting the league. To a certain degree, Chao has already succeeded.
Since 2016 he’s built up a large, devoted following on Twitter of football fans eager for the snap injury diagnoses he offers while watching games on television. (OutKick called him an “internet sensation.”) The popularity of those posts led Chao to create a fantasy football subscription service, landed him a gig with SiriusXM as a medical analyst, and netted more than a few positive stories about his newfound prominence—most of which either downplayed his controversy-laden past or excised it altogether. All the sports injury articles Chao penned for the San Diego Union-Tribune used his Twitter handle “ProFootballDoc” as his byline and not his given name.
But OutKick makes for an ideal landing spot for a “quack,” as Deadspin described Chao over the course of its extensive reporting. After all, OutKick’s most notable activity since March has been providing a platform for Travis’ COVID-19 truthering (currently a growing cottage industry within media).
In addition to Chao, OutKick hired a bunch of new staffers this spring, and the result is exactly what you’d imagine a scaled-up, Travis-helmed enterprise would look like.
The site formerly known as Outkick the Coverage (it’s a football term) features very little original reporting, but is jam-packed with credulous regurgitations of whatever culture war flotsam is roiling the right, while various Fox News hosts, other far-right figures, and at least one white nationalist have received the kid-gloves treatment. Uncredited blog posts are not uncommon, and the day’s output is padded out with cheesecake photos and straight transcriptions of Travis’ Periscope rants. One recent (also uncredited) post consisted of nothing more than an NBA reporter “liking” and then “unliking” a political OutKick tweet. Another called LeBron James “clueless,” and literally told him to “shut up and dribble.”
All of this is accompanied by constant chest-beating about how OutKick is the only outlet brave enough to publish content that is largely indistinguishable from bog-standard conservative media fare. (Reached for comment, Travis specifically asked that a list of questions be sent by email. He posted those questions on OutKick early Saturday morning “so we get the site traffic instead,” he wrote. Travis’ responses can be read in full here.)
The groaning contradictions abound. If Travis limited himself to braying that most people “don’t really care” about the politics of athletes while running a website that cares a great deal about the politics of athletes, or working himself into a tizzy of bad-faith indignation whenever an athlete fails to voice support for one of Travis’ approved political causes, it might register as risible, or pathetic even. But there are suckers who take Travis and his ideological cohorts seriously. And when it comes to the novel coronavirus, the idea anyone buys into his discredited gibberish is terrifying.
Here are a few bits of Chao’s biography that OutKick seems to have left on the cutting-room floor.
Between 1998 and 2011, the 56-year-old Harvard and Northwestern-educated orthopedic surgeon was sued 20 times by patients, who alleged he’d committed malpractice, negligence, and/or fraud. Forty percent of those lawsuits resulted in the plaintiffs being paid by Chao in settlement agreements, the San Diego Union-Tribune reported. (In one instance, an arbitration panel awarded an ex-patient of Chao’s $2.2 million after her hip surgery was botched.) His offices were searched by the Drug Enforcement Agency in 2010, and the feds claimed he’d written prescriptions to himself on 108 occasions over the previous two years. (At the time, a lawyer representing a pharmaceutical company denied that Chao was self-prescribing. The DEA’s investigation was closed in 2012 and the charges were dropped.)
In 2012, while the Medical Board of California was working to strip Chao’s license and alleged he’d acted with “gross negligence,” the NFLPA, too, wanted him out, calling for an independent panel to determine whether he was qualified for his job. The panel cleared Chao, with a team source telling the Union-Tribune the ruling was unanimous and the doctor had been “totally exonerated.”
Chao left his position with the Chargers in June 2013 because of “health reasons” and the desire to ”spend more time with his family,” the team said in a press release. But USA Today uncovered that his resignation came shortly after two hospitals in San Diego barred him from performing surgeries, following a review of the treatment he provided and allegations of alcohol consumption. (At the time, a lawyer representing Chao denied there was any causal link between his resignation and the two hospitals’ decision.) Though the state did ultimately rule against Chao, in 2014 he was given five years probation in a settlement agreement and his license to practice remained intact.
Chao went before the medical board again in 2016, stemming from his treatment of Chargers linebacker Junior Seau, the NFL great who took his own life in 2012. As Aaron Gordon reported at Vice, Seau was showing repeated warning signs of depression, and was posthumously diagnosed as suffering from chronic traumatic encephalitis. On 14 occasions in the 18 months before he committed suicide, Chao prescribed him Ambien, a sedative which can increase suicidal ideation for clinically depressed patients, per the FDA. Once again, Chao and the board settled and he received an additional three-year probation.
In a byline-free blog post at OutKick announcing his hiring in July, Chao’s record is wiped clean.
They rattled off his other accomplishments and bona fides, and highlighted that he worked for the Chargers for 17 years without a word as to why he no longer is employed by the team. “[Chao] is known for providing cutting-edge orthopaedic care, especially in the sports medicine arena,” the blog stated.
The medical care provided by the former San Diego Chargers head physician came under further scrutiny as part of a 2017 class-action lawsuit in which former players alleged that NFL teams doled out painkillers without keeping them abreast of the possible risks to their health. Though Chao was not a defendant, a 2010 email he sent asking another team trainer to back up his assertion that self-prescribing and over-medicating players—as he had done—was a frequent practice throughout the league. The case was dismissed in 2019.
As part of a lengthy, 2,200-word response to questions from The Daily Beast, Chao said the description of his email in the lawsuit represented a “gross mischaracterization” by attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “I simply stated that it was normal for team doctors in all professional leagues and even the Olympics to bring medication with them on road trips.”
He also strenuously denied that the care he provided was in any way sub-standard and said he maintains friendly relationships with many NFL players, coaches, and front-office officials who can and will vouch for him. Chao declined to say whether OutKick had asked about the controversies prior to becoming a staff writer. His full response can be read here.
At OutKick, where Chao has been given his own dedicated vertical, he has largely produced straitlaced if unremarkable COVID-19 commentary. Chao’s initial offering was a post about how NFL players faced greater risks of contracting the virus during all the activities leading up to kickoff than they did the game itself. “I am not an infectious disease expert,” he wrote. Interestingly, he also told The Daily Beast: “Some have criticized how or why a doctor would work for a site that is so opinionated on COVID. I counter that perhaps my comments will provide more balance.”
A few days after that initial post, though, Chao was carrying water for ownership. NFL players were using social media to try and force the league to address a litany of coronavirus concerns, including testing protocols and the preseason schedule length. By Chao’s assessment, teams had the situation well under control. When the NFL and NFLPA came to terms a day later, Chao ended his story with the quip: “At least the focus is finally shifting towards football,” as if the players' points of contention somehow had nothing to do with football.
But that ranks as a minor transgression compared to his boss.
The lack of qualifications hasn't in any way stopped him from spouting his own brand of honking COVID-19 takes, starting before the pandemic swept across the United States, as Samer Kalaf noted at The Outline. In late February and continuing through March, he aped the calamitous talking points put forth by the White House and right-wing press, insisting that the virus would prove far less contagious and fatal than the flu. Fears were powered by “mass hysteria,” he tweeted. Worst-case scenario, a “thousand” people would die, he promised on March 11, and healthy individuals younger than 80 and then 70 had “nothing to fear,” all of which soon proved starkly untrue.
Anyone who had the temerity to disagree with him was spreading “fear porn,” as Travis constantly put it. When April rolled around and people began pointing out that he’d been wrong, Travis blamed both the WHO and “China's fake numbers” for his bungled forecast.
But reality made it impossible for this particular shtick to continue. So he shifted gears. Travis began to post near-daily “coronavirus positivity” updates, rife with cherry-picked statistics. Should anyone poke a hole in his blinkered logic, they were and are summarily dismissed as “coronabros,” a moniker coined by Travis, as if the life-and-death stakes were a team sport with competing fandoms. It’s ridiculous to spell it out, but nobody wants more people to get sick, let alone die. Travis, though, doesn’t seem inclined to let go of his belief that gobs of people—often those on Twitter and definitely in sports media—are “rooting for the virus” to run rampant.
Travis doubled down on this claim in his responses to questions sent by The Daily Beast. He also boasted the site is “growing rapidly,” as evidenced by the “tens of millions of readers, video views, podcast downloads, [and] so forth.” OutKick.com and outkickthecoverage.com attracted about 720,000 total visits in June, per SimilarWeb, and Alexa does not show signs of rapid growth for either URL over the last 90 days.
Increasingly, Travis has shifted to a new, equally flawed rhetorical tactic: that the only metric that should matter is the number of deaths and/or the mortality rate, exponential case growth notwithstanding. He bolsters that line of thinking by tossing out stats about the deaths caused by lightning strikes, or drownings, or from alcohol consumption, or car crashes, as if they somehow could any way compare to the epochal impact of a highly infectious pandemic. (The rationale underpinning this bit is that nothing, not sports, schools, nor businesses should close down, or ever have closed down, according to Travis, the Last Reasonable Man, as Kalaf deemed his grift. Even the Trump administration is finally, belatedly admitting that states experiencing an outbreak now opened up too soon.)
The wild predictions haven’t stopped, either. Data accumulated by “major investment groups” proved that “we’d completely overreacted,” he tweeted on June 8, referencing the stock market recovery. “I suspect data at [sic] end of the year will reflect the coronavirus killed people a month or two earlier than they otherwise might have died in spring. But death rates for [sic] rest of summer will be lower than normal. And that total deaths in 2020 will be very similar to [sic] past five years.”
Between March 15 and July 11, The New York Times reported an increase of more than 179,000 deaths compared to prior years. The next day, Travis, promised life would be “back to normal” for “most places” before Independence Day, and bragged about refusing to upend his vacation in Florida that week.
Even if deaths from COVID-19 in scores of states weren’t on the rise, Travis either isn’t aware or doesn’t seem inclined to discuss the wide range of negative outcomes from COVID-19 that fall short of death. Scientists are still very much in the dark when it comes to understanding the full scope of exactly how the virus wreaks havoc on the human body. But even for those who recover from a comparatively mild case, deleterious health impacts—neurological, psychological, pulmonary, cardiovascular, you name it—could linger for months or possibly years. There is no way to determine what the long-term damages to humanity will end up being, nor how long antibodies remain present, which certainly may impact the effectiveness of vaccines that may or may not arrive in the future.
The only way out of this disaster is to put the economy on ice, devise a testing plan that isn’t rendered worthless by weeks-long waiting periods, and track anyone who comes into contact with someone who’s contagious. In varying degrees of stringency, that’s what sports leagues are attempting.
These measures have allowed other nations to stave off economic ruin, and begin returning to something approximating normalcy. The Trump administration either can’t or won’t go that route, and inevitably will extend the pandemic’s duration. When backed by disinformation merchants like Travis, who—as evidenced by his response to The Daily Beast—can’t and won’t ever admit to making mistakes, who knows how long the misery will last.
On Monday, Travis again led his Periscope broadcast with a “coronavirus update” about Florida and Texas. He also weighed in on the popularity of his site and national radio show. Part of the reason for their appeal is, “We’re not trying to pick slides,” Travis claimed. “We’re trying to be straight down the middle every single day.”
That’s an interesting way of describing OutKick’s editorial bent, but not anywhere close to an accurate one.
Beyond Travis’s output, nearly any OutKick story that even hints at a political angle is written from a perspective that mirrors the tabloid-like, nonstop outrage-bait conservatism of outlets like The Daily Caller.
When NBA star James Harden accidentally bought a protective mask splattered with fascist iconography, OutKick directed readers to check out the replies to a tweet by far-right social-media troll and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, claiming, without evidence, that people were “triggered.” Travis, too, jumped into the fray, obfuscating the imagery’s meaning and history on Periscope. The resulting straw man of a post was titled: “If A Player Supports Not Killing the Police, it’s Considered Controversial.”
They’ve also aggregated local news items about Black people who have been arrested for alleged crimes. It is unclear why OutKick believes these unremarkable stories are worth elevating, save for the fact that videos of the incidents have been burbling around online. (In response to one of these blog posts, an OutKick reader commented: “I’m sure they’ll claim wazizm in no time.”) This editorial strategy does, however, seem eerily similar to the “Black crime” tags previously found on far-right sites like Breitbart and The Federalist.
In a similar vein, Bobby Burack, a blogger who previously worked for The Big Lead, has been given room to get performatively mad about the decision to briefly pull Gone With the Wind from streaming services until a disclaimer about its racist depictions of Black people could be added.
Much like the more overtly political right-wing websites, Burack has spent lots of time cheerleading for Fox News personalities and other conservative media stars. Advertisers pulling spots from Tucker Carlson Tonight over the host’s racist on-air comments was tantamount to “a war on individuals who think differently,” he wrote, echoing the ubiquitous take found at every other conservative website around. (Not that this was the first time advertisers have dumped Carlson since the 2016 election. The exodus has coincided with the host’s increasing reliance on white-nationalist talking points, according to an analysis by the left-leaning media watchdog group Media Matters.)
OutKick seems unabashed in its attempt to copy the editorial strategy of other clickbait farms in right-wing media. For example, some blog posts celebrated Carlson’s TV ratings, deeming them a “loss for Twitter,” as Burack wrote, because Carlson doesn’t post much at all, unlike MSNBC’s liberal primetime host Chris Hayes. Another aggregation-heavy post speculated as to whether Carlson could run for higher office, a sentiment shared by noted racist and former Ku Klux Klan chief David Duke. (As The Daily Beast previously reported, some of Carlson’s Fox News colleagues have grown increasingly critical of both his and the network’s turn toward white grievance politics.) And in one blog post about a protester “twerking” near a cop, Burack embedded a tweet from Ashley St. Clair, a former TPUSA staffer who was booted from the organization for her associations with white nationalists.
The conservative media ecosystem has taken notice, of course.
Travis has appeared on cable news plenty of times before—infamously, a 2017 CNN segment was cut short when he expressed his absolute belief in “the First Amendment and boobs” on-air—but over the last month alone, OutKick writers have repeatedly popped up on The Ingraham Angle, Tucker Carlson Tonight, and Mark Levin’s show. In turn, the likes of Ben Shapiro and Dave Rubin have been guests on Travis’ podcast. And when Josh Hawley was screaming for attention and posting a screenshot of a rude email sent by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Republican senator made sure to tag OutKick on Twitter. Naturally, as a result, the site spat out multiple articles over more than 10 days and brought him on OutKick, stoking the embers of this kayfabe beef.
And then there’s Jason Whitlock.
On June 27, the former ESPN and FS1 employee who owns equity in OutKick, wrote a column claiming Jaden McNeil, a student at Kansas State, was being unfairly targeted for the jokes he posted about George Floyd. From Whitlock’s perspective, that made McNeil a “martyr” who was being unfairly persecuted. Prior to firing off a “politically incorrect, insensitive” attempt at humor, Whitlock wrote, “no one had ever heard of Jaden McNeil.”
Whitlock may not have previously heard of him, but even the most bare-bones research would have revealed that McNeil was, indeed, something of a public figure. As the Institute for Research and Education on Human Rights documented, McNeil associated with and promoted a slew of white nationalists and bigots, including Nick Fuentes, Faith Goldy, and Patrick Casey. He also founded a chapter of America First Students, an organization working to rebrand and smuggle white nationalism onto college campuses, according to IREHR. (McNeil has denied that either he or AFS espoused white nationalism.) The thumbnail image for OutKick’s story—which Whitlock posted—is taken from a livestream broadcast in which McNeil discusses how he met Fuentes and became a part of the openly racist ”Groyper” movement. Whitlock omitted all of this information. (As part of his response to The Daily Beast’s questions, Whitlock wrote: “Karen, I am the wrong negro for you to be f–king with.”)
Prior to partnering with OutKick, allegations of ethical and managerial shortcomings preceded Whitlock’s ouster from ESPN, and in a New York Magazine profile, ESPN and non-ESPN colleagues alike found him to be “paranoid, dismissive of young writers, and difficult to work with.”
These days, he pumps out disjointed, rambling, and often self-contradictory culture warrior op-eds, a vast number of which blame Twitter for all manner of societal ills and/or casually mention that he played football in college.
Some highlights include: armchair pathologizing of mixed-race athletes and actors; his insistence that the Black Lives Matter movement is as much of a conspiracy theory and poses a greater threat to the country than birtherism; pronouncing journalism “dead”—as is the American experiment—brought to an end by those who “reject the word of God,” specifically, Jesus Christ; and baselessly asserting that ESPN’s July 6 announcement of a partnership with Colin Kaepernick on a documentary series was actually an attempt to somehow preempt a New York Times article about racist incidents at the network published a week later—a conspiracy also echoed by Travis.
In one recent column, Whitlock evidently thought so little of Outkick’s readership that he felt the need to define the word “anecdote” for them. His definition used almost word-for-word the exact same language in the first result from googling “anecdote.” This is not the first time Whitlock has gone this route or been accused of passing off someone else’s words as his own.
And much like Travis, Whitlock, has adopted the ethos of the GOP death cult, arguing that high school and specifically high-school sports must resume in the fall regardless of whether the pandemic is brought under control. In order to do so, “we must first conquer our fear of death and abandon our intense focus on the dead,” he wrote.
One way in which Travis dodges accountability is by producing such a large volume of nonsense that it becomes staggeringly difficult to keep up with him. Say what you will about the middle-aged shock jock persona he’s crafted, but even if much of his time is devoted to shouting “MSESPN” in a crowded theater, Travis is nothing if not prolific.
It’s a strategy similar to one prescribed by Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former White House adviser who also co-founded and later ran Breitbart News.
The media, Bannon said, was America’s true enemy and the only way to defeat them is to “flood the zone with shit,” meaning an endless cavalcade of provocations, trolling, scandals, and atrocities.
One day, an OutKick blogger may write up NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s contribution to the Biden campaign. Within a matter of paragraphs, this mundane bit of news has been transformed into further proof that the NBA “wants to dismantle American values to secure financial stability with China.”
But before anyone has a chance to notice this galaxy-brained taken, a cavalcade of blogs and broadcasts, all bearing their own questionable theses, have already been shunted to the top of the OutKick home page, like Travis accusing the NBA of enabling “modern-day Nazis” in China, whose government is “filling of our social media with hate,” he said.
Last Sunday, Sean Trende, a reporter with RealClearPolitics, calmly explained to Travis in a series of tweets that the lack of testing available back when cases peaked in New York renders any comparison to the current mortality rates in other states—like the one Travis made—pointless. In response, Travis said Trende had made an “interesting” point.
He also railed against New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s disastrous decision to return older people who tested positive back to nursing homes. For once, Travis was correct. On Monday, it was reported that Florida has been allowing recovering COVID-19 patients back into nursing homes, and cases are growing. But Travis noticeably hasn’t returned to the subject since—never once turning his fire on Florida’s staunchly pro-Trump Gov. Ron DeSantis.
This week, Travis pivoted to writing about Sweden, which never instituted hard lockdowns. Maybe New York State should have followed their lead, he posited. But Sweden’s mortality rate far surpasses its neighboring countries, without seeing any noticeable benefit to their economy.
The day before his article was published, health officials in Sweden predicted their total COVID-19 deaths would continue to mount. Worst-case scenario, they would come close to doubling before the virus runs its course.
If and when that awful news breaks, you won’t hear about it at OutKick.