National Women's Hockey League Sighs Deeply, Deals With Barstool Sports

Under attack, the league, which has succeeded on its own terms, has responded forcefully—but not everyone in it has.
January 27, 2021, 9:32pm
A goalie, seen from behind

From the dawn of time, lesser men and “pick me” girls have expressed being threatened by women succeeding in sports by trying to tear them down. That Barstool Sports—notorious for its cult-like fanbase's campaigns of concentrated harassment—attacked players in, reporters on, staffers for, and fans of the National Women's Hockey League this week was thus perhaps no surprise.

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What has been surprising, for the better and the worse, has been the exact way all of this has played out. One of the basic dynamics of our time is how institutions and the people within them respond to aggrieved internet users rallying behind disingenuous claims. The NWHL, met with a horde of them, has responded forcefully, Not everyone within it has.

The success of the NWHL bubble season in Lake Placid is keeping women’s sports in the spotlight. Following the success of bubble seasons in the WNBA and NWSL, the NWHL, which was founded in 2015 and consists of six teams, has used the blueprint to pull off some of the most entertaining sports seen during the pandemic.

The first two days were lovely, with the best talent in hockey being highlighted through more press and attention than ever in the league’s six-year history. All of that was clouded over Monday, though, when the Twitter account of Token CEO, a podcast hosted by Erika Nardini, CEO of Barstool Sports, posted a video directed at her "haters," attacking women who have reported on or worked in the NWHL for years. The thrust of the video was that only Barstool can grow the NWHL—a point as puzzling as it was disrespectful to the people who have actually done so—and, given the nature of her audience, had predictable results.

This goes back to last week, when two players on the Metropolitan Riveters—Rebecca Russo and Kelly Babstock—appeared on Nardini’s podcast, to the chagrin of many NWHL fans who reject the historically xenopobic, racist, and homophobic audience associated with Barstool. A couple of Twitter comments expressing disappointment appeared to be as far as it would go, until Nardini issued her video. 

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Given that Barstool's audience is infamous for its campaigns of targeted harassment against women, this video, in which Nardini centered herself and Barstool as potential saviors of a league that is doing fine without them and named individual women who work for and covering the NWHL as haters standing in the way of its success, clearly ran a risk of exposing real people to real harassment. And predictably, those whose handles, likes, and tweets she displayed to her audience were in fact subjected to an onslaught of abuse.

Subsequently, several players, led by Saroya Tinker, a rookie and the lone Black player on the Riveters, spoke out against any NWHL involvement with Barstool. Riveters assistant coach Ashley Johnston expressed support for her; six other players, including captain Madison Packer, did so on Twitter. The league, for its part, released a statement by commissioner Ty Tumminia on Tuesday. She also had strong responses to direct questions from reporters when she held a media availability between the two games played that night.

"I don't find the association healthy," she said, “to the objectives that we're trying to do."

This would seem to settle it as far as a commitment from the NWHL's commitment to not engage in any public association with Barstool Sports. Given that the league does not have full-time players, though—unlike highly-paid NFL players who are surrounded by armies of paid flacks, NWHL players are essentially workaday citizens playing for low salaries—the league is working on ways internally to educate players and prevent more PR disasters. It might have some work to do there.

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On Tuesday night, Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy tweeted a video riddled with inaccuracies and mocking the devastating, career-ending injury suffered by Denna Laing in the league's first season of the league in 2015. (The NWHL honors Laing every year with an award, and her number is retired by the Boston Pride.) Portnoy also expressed a desire for Tinker—who wrote "WE, as a league do not want support from ANY openly racist platform" in a tweet in which she accused Barstool of promoting white supremacy—to be jailed.

Her teammate, Kelly Babstock, liked that tweet and ensuing replies; former teammate Courtney Burke, no longer with the league, tweeted support for Portnoy and Nardini multiple times in the wee hours of Wednesday morning. Riveters rookie Theresa Knutson quote-tweeted the original Nardini tweet with a fire emoji, despite it targeting a team employee. (She has since deleted the tweet.)

Riveters director of hockey operations Gabrielle Gjelaj, meanwhile, put out a message of support for Nardini on Instagram early Wednesday morning.

Former Pride goalie Katie Burt, who jumped ship to the Professional Women's Hockey Players Association, which has held sponsored events with Barstool in Arizona, claimed other media outlets had not supported the league like Barstool had.

Several Riveters players have apologized privately to people in and around the NWHL who have been directly harmed by their teammates’ behavior, and league sources said there are discussions “hourly” privately on how to handle it all.

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Other teams, such as Boston and Toronto, have meanwhile established no-tolerance policies for associating with Barstool or other harmful media to people who work in and cover the league.

The Riveters, though, are the last team standing to not address it in any manner, and they’re the team with Tinker—who stood up long before anyone else in the league against the bigotry perpetrated by the platform her teammates so readily stand behind.

The league isn’t expected to make any further public statement aside from reiterating its stance that it will not associate with or sell Barstool Sports or anyone associated with it a member club in the league. It believes its statement was clear and won’t change.

Accountability next falls on to the Riveters to address their own locker room and the harm directly perpetrated by players on the roster—some to their own teammate, and some to reporters and league staffers who have endured harassment over the past several days. Above all, it falls to Barstool, and to the CEO who's attempted to ironically own criticisms of her as a token female CEO overseeing a platform built on misogyny and harassment of women by hosting something called Token CEO.

"The success of our movement hinges on respect, opportunity, and a strong sense of connectedness," said Tumminia in a statement earlier this week. "Let's keep the focus on our athletes."