Barstool drama creates headache for ESPN, including sexual harassment allegations

“We had an ESPN show and all we got was this lousy shirt.”

That’s how Barstool Sports’ host Dan “Big Cat” Katz summed up his experience with “The Worldwide Leader” after the network made the decision to cancel Barstool Van Talk after airing just one episode.

Speaking on the latest episode of the popular Pardon My Take podcast (to which ESPN once sent a cease-and-desist letter) Katz and pseudonymous co-host PFT Commenter opened up about the network’s decision to cancel the show after Sunday NFL Countdown host Sam Ponder tweeted out sexist and vulgar comments made about her in a 2014 blog post and during an episode of Barstool Rundown.  

Camera icon Barstool Sports
Dan “Big Cat” Katz (left) and the pseudonymous PFT Commenter (right) speak to Dan Patrick during the newest episode of “Pardon My Take.”

“Looking back on it, it was stupid. I apologize for that word,” Katz said, referring to Barstool Sports president Dave Portnoy repeatedly referring to Ponder as a “slut” and calling her newborn daughter a “little rat kid.”

“I apologize for laughing,” Katz continued. “But the rest of the rant… that’s what we do. We make fun of everything.”

The partnership between family-friendly ESPN and irreverent Barstool was bound to be problematic for the Disney-owned sports network, which tried to thread the needle between appropriating the content to attract its coveted audience of younger fans without associating itself with the baggage of its often sexist and sometimes vulgar content.

Within ESPN, there was fierce criticism of the partnership with Barstool, which also used its platform to bash network personalities like Chris Mortensen and Sal Paolantonio. Others, such as ESPN executive vice president Burke Magnus and SportsCenter host Scott Van Pelt, were defenders of the show and fans of Katz and PFT Commenter. Many ESPN personalities, including Van Pelt, Rachel Nichols, Adam Schefter and Jemele Hill, have appeared as guests on Pardon My Take.

But in the end, the association with some of Barstool’s sexist and vulgar content was too much for a network with little to gain and a lot to lose over the controversy the partnership, originally scheduled for a 20-week run, would garner.

“While we had approval on the content of the show, I erred in assuming we could distance our efforts from the Barstool site and its content,” ESPN President John Skipper said in a statement.

For Barstool, the canceled deal represents a new challenge for CEO Erika Nardini, who has been in search of partners to help boost the site’s audience since taking over in July 2016 after Chernin Digital Group purchased a majority stake in the company for a valuation between $10 million and $15 million.

“We’re not going to live or die by a 22-minute show on a secondary network in the middle of the night,” an unapologetic Nardini told CNBC. “Is our content for everyone? Absolutely not. Are there people who find our voice offensive? You bet. Part of what makes Barstool so powerful is its unwavering commitment to its voice and the belief that nothing should be sacred.”

The canceled partnership has also left ESPN open to claims of hypocrisy. Former Jets sideline reporter Jenn Sterger called ESPN “just as bad” as Barstool during a detailed account of a 2007 incident where she claims she was duped by an unnamed ESPN employee into going to a strip club following a test for an on-air opportunity.

Sterger also detailed a 2008 encounter with the same  ESPN employee “who had by now risen in the ranks” during a job interview at the network’s headquarters in Brisol, Conn., where she claims she was asked if she had “hooked up” with other ESPN employees and had to listen to him bragging about the relationships he had with his female co-workers.

“He still works there. He’s still gainfully employed. He’s a decision maker there,” Sterger wrote.

ESPN said it had no knowledge of Sterger’s allegations, and would investigate her claims.

“We have no record of this ever being brought to our attention,” the network said in a statement. “We thoroughly investigate all allegations brought to us. Fostering a professional and respectful workplace is a top priority for ESPN and we always encourage people to report any issues.”

The allegations have also brought to light questionable statements made by ESPN staffers over the years, including comments Ponder made when Sterger accused former Packers quarterback Brett Favre of sending her sexually explicit voicemails and texts (Favre was fined $50,000 over the incident).

“Bro: What does Jen Sterger look like? Me: She has brown hair and big boobs. Dad: So does Rosie O’Donnell. #Goodpoint” Ponder wrote on Twitter back in 2010.

The failed partnership just adds to what has been a particularly difficult year for ESPN, which laid-off nearly 100 on-air personalities as it continues to lose cable subscribers due to cord cutting. The network has also found itself in the sights of the White House and conservatives after SportsCenter anchor Jemele Hill called President Trump a “white supremacist” on Twitter and pulled a broadcaster named Robert Lee from calling a Virginia basketball game due to his name.