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Barstool Sports Founder's Anti-Union Controversy Explained

Dave Portnoy is the founder of sports and pop culture website Barstool Sports

Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy's anti-union tweets have prompted responses from labor organizations and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Portnoy launched the sports and pop culture website in 2007, and in 2016, Barstool Sports was purchased by The Chernin Group. Later that year, Erika Nardini was named CEO, though Portnoy retained creative control of the site. In recent years, Barstool has been the focus of many controversies and accusations of sexual harassment.

Barstool Sports has also garnered a reputation of misogyny among the sports community. For instance, in 2018 Barstool partnered with ESPN for a TV show called Barstool Van Talk featuring two well-known Barstool personalities, PFT Commenter and Dan "Big Cat" Katz. However, the show was cancelled by ESPN after one episode over concern about Barstool's past, particularly the site having targeted and harassed ESPN employees, including sportscaster Samantha Ponder. Earlier this year, both Deadspin and The Daily Beast published in-depth pieces on the toxic culture fostered by Barstool, specifically its founder. Now, Portnoy is back in the news, but this time in regards to violating labor laws.

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On Aug. 12, Portnoy tweeted about staffers at sports, pop culture and tech site The Ringer potentially unionizing with a link to a 2015 Barstool post in which he criticized Gawker staff for voting to unionize. At the time, he wrote, "I hope and I pray that Barstool employees try to unionize. ... Just so I can smash their little union to smithereens." In response to Portnoy, Live Science staff writer Rafi Letzter tweeted that he'd be willing to privately discuss the unionization process with any Barstool Sports writers. Then on Aug. 13, Portnoy quote-tweeted Letzter, writing, "If you work for @barstoolsports and DM this man I will fire you on the spot." Portnoy also quote-tweeted lawyer Matt Weir, who had offered his services pro bono to Barstool employees attempting to unionize, writing, "Anybody who hires this lawyer will be fired immediately and I will personally sue you for damages and back wages."

Portnoy's tweets attracted the attention of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), which quote-tweeted the Barstool founder, tagging the National Labor Relations Board, and confirmed that threats to fire staffers if they try to unionize is against the law. The New York State Department of Labor quote-tweeted a user that had screenshotted and posted both Portnoy's tweets, writing, "It is illegal to take any unfavorable action - including termination - against employees for union-related activities under the National Labor Relations Act." Then, U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted in support of workers who want to unionize. (Her tweet attracted a great deal of attention, not only from Portnoy, but Donald Trump Jr., with the former's tweets tinged in the misogyny that's earned Barstool its reputation).

When Variety reported on the story, they reached out to Barstool Sports and The Chernin Group for comment but did not receive any response. Since the controversy gained steam on social media, members of the Barstool fan community have come to Portnoy's defense, with some claiming his anti-union tweets were jokes. However, it should be noted that breaking the law as a joke is still breaking the law. Barstool has built its following on poking fun at things they think people take too seriously, often with mean-spirited take-downs, but in this instance, Portnoy hit on an incredibly hot-button issue concerning unions and labor laws. Online media is still relatively new, and many sites' staffs aren't unionized. So the media has entered a new, important era of online labor and it remains to be seen whether the laws will catch up to the internet or if joining standard unions is the only way for workers to get the protections that are legally afforded to them, protections it seems Portnoy is attempting to prevent his own staff from gaining.

However, Barstool personalities have voiced their support of Portnoy and his stance that the site doesn't need a union. On Aug 12., Barstool writer Kate Mannion posted a story titled, "I Haven't Been Paying Attention To Anything At The Office Today But Anyways, I'm Starting A Union At Barstool And These Are My Demands" poking fun at the union controversy. On Aug. 13, a Twitter account titled Barstool Sports Union began tweeting pro-union rhetoric, including a letter of intent. However, the letter of intent seems to be copied from the one sent by The Ringer and the account appears to be a joke trolling critics of Portnoy.

Further, Katz responded to a question on Twitter, writing, "I'm very pro-union. I don't think a union makes sense for us. Does that work?" Fellow Barstool personality Dave Williams agreed with Katz. Michael "Barstool Carl" Sterk also defended Barstool not unionizing by praising the company's healthcare plans, "I’ve never seen an employer offer what Barstool gives us." Having a good boss or a good healthcare plan and 401K are standard reasons those who are anti-union cite for not forming unions. But it should be noted that unionizing won't necessarily change those things, they'll simply protect workers from having those benefits taken away at the whims of Portnoy and fellow upper management.

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