It seems as though ESPN’s moral compass has become demagnetized.
The network is partnering with Barstool Sports for a new show, “Barstool Van Talk,” which debuted on ESPN2 on Tuesday. Before the first episode aired, Samantha Ponder, the current host of ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown, sarcastically tweeted a welcome to the new show’s host, Dan Katz. She attached to the tweet a picture of a past blog post from Barstool President Dave Portnoy, which stated that Ponder’s main job requirement was to “make men hard.” In a later radio interview, Portnoy called Ponder a “f–king slut” while Katz laughed.
Barstool—whose brand is one of self-described satire and geared toward men—is a partner in this venture with ESPN. “I’m very happy that Barstool for the most part is family,” Portnoy tweeted Monday night. “Poke fun, make fun, row together. Maybe that’s part of our success?”
How can ESPN partner with a media outlet whose president and host launched such foul and vicious attacks on one of its own?
The network, still under fire from its handling of the Jemele Hill situation—in which she was suspended for suggesting fans should boycott a football team’s advertisers—quickly riposted. Executive Vice President Burke Magnus told the Washington Post, “The comments about Sam Ponder were offensive and inappropriate, and we understand her reaction.”
In an attempt to put distance between ESPN and Barstool, Magnus added, “As stated previously, we do not control the content of Barstool Sports. We are doing a show with Big Cat and PFT, and we do have final say on the content of that show.”
That explanation is just not good enough. Indeed, in an era of sexually harassing film executives and crotch-grabbing politicians, it is completely unacceptable.
Calling out ESPN is not about stifling free speech. It is about holding the network responsible for collaborating with an outlet that poisons the discourse on women’s bodies and in doing so, harms them directly. Barstool defends its coarse language as appealing to family values and male bonding. But in reality, the crude talk about women is just that—crude talk about women—and it has no place on ESPN.
ESPN is already losing cord-cutting customers and laid off about 100 staffers earlier this year. Given the network’s troubles, why would it partner with an obnoxious business like Barstool? ESPN needs to make better decisions—and soon.
Sue Carter is a professor in the School of Journalism at Michigan State University.