It’s been a long 48 hours for your boy,” Dave Portnoy, the founder of Barstool Sports, said in an address to his 2.7 million Twitter followers late on a Friday night earlier this month. Portnoy was filming a response to an article published by Business Insider the day before, in which three women described distressing sexual encounters with him. One of the women, who was 20 at the time, said that in the summer of 2020, Portnoy, who was 43, filmed her performing oral sex and choked her without her permission. “It was so rough I felt like I was being raped,” the woman wrote to a friend in a text message two days later, according to Business Insider. “I was literally screaming in pain.”
A second woman, who was 19, said Portnoy had choked her and spit in her mouth. She didn’t describe the encounter as sexual assault but said she “felt very preyed on.” Another woman said Portnoy also choked and filmed her without permission. All three women were given anonymity, fearing retaliation from Portnoy and his followers, both of whom have a reputation for tormenting those who cross him.
For most public figures, this would be a moment to step back. But not for Portnoy. A few hours after the article came out, and apparently against the advice of legal counsel, Portnoy took to social media to deliver his own vigorous defense. He said that the women had approached him and everything had been consensual. He shared screenshots of what he said were Instagram DMs from the second woman in which she apparently reached out and expressed no immediate regret after their encounter.
“Miss my dick yet?” Portnoy wrote back to her.
“Hahahaha of course,” she replied.
In tweets, live-stream videos, and on his eponymous weekly podcast, Portnoy claimed that the Business Insider article was a “hit piece” that was part of a “witch hunt” led by the forces that had been coming after him for a decade. He said it was hard for a guy like him—wealthy, big on Instagram, spends a lot of time in Miami—to turn away the droves of young women DM’ing him. “I don’t go after them,” he said. “They go after me.” Portnoy has made a habit of being brashly unapologetic, and watching his response to the article felt both bizarre and somewhat inevitable. Over the years, Portnoy has joked about rape while insisting he doesn’t condone it; called female sports reporters “sluts” and “cunts” in the name of comedy; and had several sex tapes that became public, one of which showed him choking another college-age woman. (The woman said the act was consensual.)
Portnoy founded Barstool Sports in 2003 as a free newspaper for lowbrow content aimed at men. Today, he is at the center of Barstool’s sprawling network of podcasts, livestreams, and YouTube shows, including one devoted to talking about what it’s like to be Dave Portnoy. The company expects to make $200 million in annual revenue next year. He is most famous for his regular Instagram reviews of pizza shops around the country, which are so popular that Walmart began selling a Barstool-branded frozen pie this fall. After the Business Insider story was published, Portnoy encouraged his followers “to beat cancel culture” by showing their support for him and buying as many pizzas as they could.
Then there is El Presidente, Portnoy’s asshole alter ego, whom Tucker Carlson has referred to as “not the president of a country but instead of a mind-set.” Since the pandemic began, he has morphed from being America’s bro-fluencer-in-chief into an icon among the Robinhood day-trading crowd and anti-wokeness crusaders. At the same time, Portnoy sold Barstool at a $450 million valuation last year and was refashioning the company and himself into aspiring players in the business of America’s next big legalized vice: sports gambling.
There was a time—call it four years ago— when allegations like the ones Portnoy was now facing would have been enough to derail a career or at least force a retreat from the limelight. But recent history has revealed that while some famous men and women have followers and fans who subject them to strict tests of virtue, others are revered for playing the heel. Portnoy spent the days after the allegations tweeting obsessively and laying out a conspiracy he believed was working against him. The article had been published on the same day that Penn National Gaming, the casino company that had acquired Barstool, reported disappointing quarterly earnings. The company’s stock took a nosedive before tanking even more after the allegations were published, ending the day down more than 20 percent. Portnoy retweeted screenshots that claimed to show heavy trading against Penn’s stock the day before, and he suggested that someone had tipped off investors. His prime suspect: Henry Blodget, the CEO of Insider, who had been permanently banned from the securities industry after settling a case over securities fraud. Portnoy suspected that some of Blodget’s powerful friends might be out to get him—perhaps one of Portnoy’s perceived enemies from his role in the GameStop meme-stock saga. “I feel like I’m in a movie,” Portnoy said. “I don’t know what to believe.”
A week after the story came out, Portnoy announced he would be livestreaming an “Emergency Press Conference,” promoted with an image that suggested he was preparing for a UFC title fight. During the hour-long video presentation, Portnoy went through slides of Instagram screenshots and text messages suggesting the reporter and her sources were biased against him. He thought his best piece of evidence was a “finsta,” or fake Instagram account, that Portnoy said belonged to one of the women, on which he said that shortly after their encounter, she posted a picture from Portnoy’s visit to the White House last year to interview then-President Trump. (The caption read: “OK. Not my proudest fuck.”) He wondered out loud if this would be his most-watched livestream ever.
Portnoy had managed to turn his defense against serious accusations of sexual misconduct into viral content. More than a million people have watched Portnoy’s press conference, and a day later, Barstool released behind-the-scenes footage of him preparing for the presentation and receiving a round of applause from his employees. “I am at the height of my powers,” he said on an episode of Davey Day Trader Global, his stock-trading show, while Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane” played in the background. Portnoy claimed his social-media following had received its biggest boost in months and that people were shouting their support as he walked around Manhattan. He said the incident had only increased “the level of loyalty, stickiness, all of that,” and that his backers were still behind him, namely Penn, which had always known it was taking the risk that Portnoy’s influence would be worth any trouble he caused the company as it tried to license and launch the Barstool Sportsbook app in states across the country. Portnoy said multiple times on air that he was nervous about what other stories might surface, while insisting there was nothing he was truly worried about. He had launched a campaign to #Cancel BusinessInsider, and his online followers went on the attack. He engraved three Champagne bottles with the names of his new enemies there, which he planned to pop whenever he felt he could declare victory. To mark Portnoy’s latest campaign for revenge, the Barstool merch store started selling a commemorative hoodie.
WHEN I REACHED OUT TO Barstool PR with fact-checking questions for this article, Portnoy himself replied a few hours later, upset that we planned to relay his recent declaration on Davey Day Trader Global that he was going to “threaten” an unnamed advertiser who was considering backing out of a deal after the Business Insider article. “Pulling quotes from my Ddtg stream is the equivalent of pulling quotes from a professional wrestler on a microphone during the middle of a telecast,” he said via email. “It is dishonest and intentionally deceptive journalism which seems to be the flavor of the day.” Portnoy was accusing me of committing the sin he has ascribed to many of his enemies over the years: taking him seriously.
I originally contacted Barstool months ago, hoping to talk to Portnoy about how a guy known for eating pizza had become a political hero and the face of a growing multibillion-dollar industry. Barstool declined multiple requests until after the Business Insider allegations were made public, at which point Portnoy agreed to sit for an interview—but only if he could record audio and video to use as he saw fit. Portnoy wanted me to step into the ring and do battle. I said he was welcome to record audio but that I wasn’t comfortable interviewing him on a serious topic while being filmed for a piece of Barstool content. Portnoy declined the offer, then posted our entire email exchange on Twitter, claiming this story was yet another extension of the conspiracy against him—“a coordinated one two punch designed to ruin my life and KO Barstool once and for all.” I quickly received hundreds of messages from his followers on Twitter, Instagram, and even LinkedIn, where one Stoolie, as Barstool fans self-identify, called me a “fuckin tool.” My agent, whose email address Portnoy retweeted a screenshot of, got a message signed by “Adolf Hitler, CEO of Bofa Deez Nuts.” Another Stoolie left a comment on Portnoy’s Instagram with the home address of one of my family members.
It was easier after all this to understand why it had been so difficult to get anyone to talk about Portnoy or Barstool at all. Some employees had signed nondisclosure agreements, and many more were just uninterested in the online harassment leveled against pretty much anyone who upsets Portnoy. Even people who liked Barstool and had admiring things to say told me they wouldn’t do so in public; Portnoy’s blustering internet presence had created such a toxic swirl around him that they were worried saying the wrong thing could make them the victim of a scary pile-on. “There’s nobody you want to be in a mess with less than Dave and Barstool,” one former employee told me.
One place where Portnoy’s fans were happy to talk was in the crowd at a live taping of the Barstool College Football Show, which Portnoy was hosting in Chicago on the last Saturday in September. “I need Portnoy,” a young man holding a sign that read i puked last night yelled at a tour bus with Portnoy’s face pasted on the side. The bus was in a parking lot just north of Soldier Field, where the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Wisconsin Badgers were about to play. “Saturdays Are for the Boys,” as the Barstool catchphrase goes, and on this morning, the boys were carrying plastic bags filled with beer cans and ice and downing nips of premade Barstool-branded cocktails consisting of vodka and pink lemonade. During the show, Barstool was planning to raffle off $15,000 in unidentified cryptocurrency to someone in the crowd—a sign of the company’s grip on a particular Zeitgeist. The kid who puked last night was wearing a shirt that read portnoy musk 2024.
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