Earlier this week, National Women’s Hockey League (NWHL) players Kelly Babstock and Rebecca Russo appeared on Erika Nardini’s controversial podcast, Token CEO. I say that the podcast is controversial because Nardini is the CEO of Barstool Sports, an organization famous for carrying out mass harassment campaigns against marginalized sports fans. Unsurprisingly, several members of the women’s hockey community were upset that these players had appeared on a podcast associated with Barstool, and expressed that discontent on social media.
In response, Nardini put out a video calling out various people who had criticized her involvement with the NWHL. The video featured screenshots of tweets from some of the most prominent women’s hockey writers out there, all of them angry about Babstock and Russo’s decision to associate with Nardini and Barstool. The screenshots were edited over audio of Nardini praising the NWHL, clearly intended as some kind of “gotcha!” to anyone criticizing her and her company. The message was clear: she has always been a supporter of women’s hockey, she has done more to grow the game than any other journalist, and fans of the NWHL should be grateful to her for all the support that she has given the league.
Unsurprisingly, the callout resulted in a classic Barstool harassment campaign directed at people all too familiar with the company’s tactics, and Barstool has only doubled down on their comments since.
This entire situation speaks to a worrying trend that I’ve noticed at Barstool and, admittedly, in the wider sports world, which is their embrace of a particular brand of white feminism.
Moves like hiring Nardini as CEO help Barstool position itself as an organization that supports “women in sports,” when it’s really only supporting a very specific type of woman in sports. This isn’t feminism, it’s not doing anything for women in sports, and the NWHL should be very careful to avoid falling for it.
Why do people hate Barstool?
I’m not going to go deep into Barstool’s problematic past, because it’s been well documented by more qualified people than myself. I’d encourage anyone unfamiliar with the site to check out those links, but the tl;dr of it is that Barstool has a long and storied history of racism and misogyny. Their supporters are also famous across the sports world for carrying out massive harassment campaigns against anyone who speaks out against Barstool’s culture, or about sports culture at large. I myself have been the target of a few of those campaigns, and I’m not exaggerating when I say that every single woman I know who has a significant following in the hockey community has a horror story that makes me want to stay far, far away from this organization and their followers.
But Barstool can’t be sexist! They’re run by women!
I think Nardini (along with other Barstool women, including Call Her Daddy host Alexandra Cooper, who wasn’t involved in this particular saga but is certainly an important part of Barstool’s white feminism as well) is an especially dangerous part of Barstool’s culture. This is because she justifies and excuses the site’s toxic behaviour so that it can be weaponized against other people.
In her 2017 book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, feminist philosopher Kate Manne argues that it is not useful for us to think of misogyny exclusively in terms of the dictionary definition of the word: hatred of women. According to that definition, you can only be a misogynist if you hate all women, and since there aren’t that many people in the world who genuinely hate every single woman just because they’re women, and even if those people did exist, you’d have a hard time proving that they genuinely hate all women, it’s kind of hard to accuse someone of misogyny and have the accusation really stick. It’s also pretty hard to accuse women of misogyny because, well, they’re women themselves.
Manne argues for a different, more useful understanding of misogyny. By her account, we should instead think of misogyny as the practice of upholding a very specific standard for women while putting down every woman who doesn’t meet that standard. Misogynists put down “bad women,” but they also hype up “good women.” Think, for instance, of politicians who can’t possibly be misogynists, because they love their very beautiful, kind and generous wives! If every woman could be a little bit more like these wives, then there would be no more misogyny in the world!
This is where Erika Nardini comes in.
Women have always liked Barstool, and Nardini is emblematic of the typical female “stoolie.” She’s white, she’s pretty, and she’s “one of the guys.” Nardini doesn’t bear the brunt of her supporters’ misogyny; most of the time, she benefits from it, because she gets to play the role of the good woman – the one type of woman that’s allowed to exist in sports. Her supporters get to reassure themselves that they can’t possibly be misogynists, because they like Erika Nardini and they listen to Token CEO and Call Her Daddy, and misogynists don’t do either of those things. Going after Nardini’s detractors is #feminism because it’s all about defending a powerful woman in sports. If other women in sports don’t want to get harassed, then they should just try being a little more like the Barstool women.
Right now, Nardini is trying to paint herself as the biggest supporter of women in sports while putting down the people – almost all of them women, and many of them queer or BIPOC – who have been working to promote women’s sports and to make the NWHL a welcoming environment since long before Nardini and Barstool took any interest. Check the replies to her Tweet and to the ones calling out Barstool if you dare: the overwhelming response from her supporters was to mock and degrade the people speaking out against Barstool. “Pronouns in bio” and “blue hair” and “SJW” were thrown around, all in the name of hyping up Nardini and the work she’s done with Barstool.
Thanks for all that support, Nardini.
No, women’s hockey doesn’t need Barstool
It seems to me that Barstool’s defensiveness during this situation comes down to a belief that the NWHL should be grateful for the exposure it’s getting. After all, Barstool is one of the biggest media platforms in sports, and I don’t doubt that there’s a large group of people who didn’t start taking the NWHL seriously until Barstool started talking about it.
But here’s the thing: Barstool supporters are not the arbiters of whether or not a sport is worth taking seriously.
Catering to Barstool supporters will drive away the passionate fanbase the NWHL has built over the years, and the league doesn’t have to do it. Those white dudes Barstool is bringing in? They’re never going to like women’s hockey as much as they like men’s hockey. Meanwhile, the NWHL has been bringing in sponsors and signing deals with broadcasting companies even without Barstool’s help.
There’s a huge market out there of people who love hockey but don’t like hockey culture. There’s no reason why the NWHL shouldn’t cater to them instead.
We should be concerned about Barstool’s #Girlboss white feminism
I think this #Girlboss narrative – this attempt to paint Barstool as the real feminists, the real supporters of women’s hockey, standing up to the crazy SJWs giving their sport a bad name – is something that is only going to get worse, and something that women’s hockey needs to deal with, soon.
Barstool likes women’s hockey now. The NWHL seems to have finally gotten on the good side of the very people who have spent the last few years cyberbullying its core audience. Some of their players have won the title of “good women,” and it probably feels really good to get that kind of positive attention from a company that has so much influence in hockey media. But you can’t have a league that appeals both to the Barstool crowd and to the main targets of their infamous harassment campaigns. You have to choose.
Embracing Barstool and its culture of online harassment would be a betrayal, not just of the NWHL’s audience, but of players like Riveters rookie Saroya Tinker, who are not going to be treated well by the Barstool crowd. Barstool president Dave Portnoy has already openly called for Tinker to be jailed for criticizing his company, and several of her Riveters teammates liked the tweet. I was pleasantly surprised by the way the NWHL responded to the initial video, but they need to do more to protect their players, especially in light of Portnoy’s most recent comments. I hope that they continue to distance themselves from this organization as much as possible.