Late Monday night, Barstool Sports CEO Erika Nardini put out a video calling out various people who had criticized her involvement with the National Women’s Hockey League. The video featured screenshots of tweets from some of the most prominent women’s hockey writers out there (and, for some reason, me, though she conveniently cropped my tweet to only show the first sentence), all of them, in my opinion, rightfully angry about the fact that a few NWHL players had recently appeared on her podcast. 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 and introducing the Call Her Daddy podcast 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 (getting rape threats in your DMs for a week: would not recommend), 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, because she justifies and excuses their toxic behaviour so that it can be weaponized against other people.
There’s a tendency to view misogyny in terms of the dictionary definition of the word: hatred of women. 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, you know.
For this reason, feminist theory has been moving away from this dictionary definition of misogyny and toward something a little bit more useful. Now, misogyny is mostly understood as upholding a very specific standard for women while putting down every woman who doesn’t meet that standard.1 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,” except she’s also cool with being sexualized by her fans. 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, though women’s hockey could still do better in the latter category – 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. I guess “support all women” only applies when you’re trying to shut down women of colour calling you out on racism, right Erika?
Thanks for all that support.
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.
Women, BIPOC and queer people are often considered undesirable audiences. Anything geared toward us is automatically considered less serious, whether we’re talking about books or TV or music or sports, and I think this is becoming a very obvious problem as women’s hockey gains more mainstream attention. Barstool supporters think of themselves as a much more desirable audience than the one the NWHL currently has. To them, the leagues’ end goal should be to get rid of the base they currently have, and swap it out with a more traditional hockey audience. The worst part is, I’m not even sure the NWHL disagrees with this.
Women’s hockey has (mostly) become a safe and welcoming space for people who have been pushed out of men’s hockey. The demographic is completely different, and so is the culture, and for a lot of fans, that’s a welcome change. A lot of women’s hockey fans – especially bloggers and journalists – have also spent the last few years facing constant harassment just for expressing excitement about women’s hockey, and a lot of that harassment has come from Barstool’s base. I’m not even exaggerating here. I’ve gotten into lots of fights on the internet over the years, and I can say with absolute certainty that nothing comes even close to comparing to the level of harassment I’ve received for talking about women’s hockey. A tweet as innocuous as “that was a really good game” will bring in a slew of responses about women’s sports being unwatchable, women not being as athletic as men, how women’s hockey compares to men’s hockey, etc, etc. You’ll have to forgive me for not wanting to associate with the people who’ve been doing that to me and to my friends for years.
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. But 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
Alright, I’m going to wrap this up with why I’ve had a sick feeling in my stomach ever since that video came out on Monday.
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.
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, 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.
You know, I’ve been talking about the toxic culture surrounding men’s hockey for years now, and what I keep hearing in response is that if I hate hockey culture so much, I should just stop watching. Maybe it’s time stoolies took their own advice.
SJWs with pronouns in their bios is women’s hockey culture. At least, I hope it is. If you don’t like it, you can always leave.
1 For a more detailed explanation of how this type of misogyny works, I’d highly recommend reading Kate Manne’s book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, which does a fantastic job of explaining the role of white women in a racist patriarchy.