Jeff Jacobs: With Barstool, ESPN Playing A Risky Game

Update: On Monday, Oct. 23, ESPN President John Skipper issued a staement stating that Barstool Van Talk would be canceled. "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," he wrote. Barstool's Big Cat, PFT and Hank issued their own statement saying "We are very disappointed to hear that Barstool Van Talk has been cancelled by ESPN. We had a great time working on the show and were extremely excited about the future." The following was published Monday morning:

When Bob Ley sat with us in Bristol last spring, the journalistic heart and soul of ESPN talked about his company having a "huge tent." This was after the massive layoffs of onscreen and online talent.

This was before ESPN hired new talent with built-in followings of thousands, if not millions.

As Jemele Hill returns Monday from her two-week suspension for a second violation of the company's social media policy, I can't stop thinking about that huge tent at the hugest sports media company in history.

Ley used the term to mean there is plenty of room at ESPN for different voices and different types of shows. As ESPN added the edgy "Barstool Van Talk," featuring Dan "Big Cat" Katz and PFT Commentator of Barstool Sports, this past week, I can't stop thinking about what the huge tent will mean going forward at ESPN.

Does it mean ESPN will welcome and develop all voices?

Or does it simply mean profit margin will guide the content, first, last and forever?

The confluence of Donald Trump, Barstool Sports and cord-cutting has brought ESPN to one of the most important times in its history. How it handles itself will tell us everything about its moral compass, political bent and, yes, its funny bone.

Faced with the enormous burden of broadcast rights fees and the loss of millions of subscribers because of cord-cutting, ESPN clearly is basing its new hires on an ability to attract a younger audience, not only to its cable channels, but to its content on myriad digital platforms.

This is a wise business decision. Just follow a few young people around for a day. They've got their noses buried in a PC or an iPhone, not a TV. ESPN was surprisingly slow in developing its own talent in this regard. So it did what any corporate giant would do. It made deals with outsiders. Enter NBA giant Adrian Wojnarowski, the Barstool duo, Katie Nolan, Greg "Puck Daddy" Wyshynski.

Big Cat and PFT are going to take ESPN places in matters of decorum it doesn't necessarily want to go. Politically, ESPN already turned to more provocative, more diverse voices in the past few years. Nothing stands out more than The Six, hosted by Hill and Michael Smith that replaced the 6 p.m. SportsCenter.

Hill was not suspended for tweeting Trump is a white supremacist, bigot, unfit to be president. She was suspended a few weeks later, in the midst of the national anthem furor, after Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he would bench any player who disrespected the flag. Hill tweeted, "If you feel strongly about JJ's statement, boycott his advertisers." She later tweeted she wasn't calling for an NFL boycott.

Hill told TMZ that she deserved the suspension after the Trump tweets because she violated ESPN guidelines. She said she regrets putting ESPN in a bad spot, but "I will never take back what I said." Hill said she'll go right back to tweeting.

So what happens when Hill, Michael Smith, Stephen A. Smith or Max Kellermangoes off on Trump for the next stunt he pulls? The president has his nose in sports. He'll do something.

Or maybe ESPN should do something that has become painfully obvious to this old liberal. Conservative voices need regular spots on ESPN. Politics isn't the big reason for the ESPN ratings drop, but if it wants to be considered even-handed, it has to level the field some. And, no, I don't think ESPN should stick to sports. Athletics impact society in a massive way.

This is what drives me nuts about ESPN: It puts people in positions where they know who they are and what they stand for, yet they try to control them some. Let's cash in on their edgy, hip or minority thought, but let's not offend sponsors, Disney or elected officials.

Bringing in the Barstool guys reminds me of the old "Ed Sullivan Show" when producers tried to get the Doors to change the lyrics live to "Light My Fire." Of course, Jim Morrison kept to the original, "Girl, we couldn't get much higher." Big Cat and PFT will be taped, and they are two guys from Barstool that don't need to curse to be funny, but don't you think they'll push the envelope? Don't you think attempts to censor by ESPN will get out through Barstool? Isn't the reason they're on at 1 a.m. in the first place to cash in on the young male audience?

My take on Barstool Sports probably is more forgiving than many folks my age. Look, it is a young guy humor site about sports, women and drinking. It is sophomoric, often funny, and most of it is harmless. Yes, they curse. Yes, they jump ugly at mainstream sports media. Yes, they post pictures of college women, often in swimsuits, and nominate them for its "smokeshow." I reached out to Barstool Storrs, the site's branch for UConn, after I saw UConn athletes among the nominees. I was assured women nominate themselves or their friends do, and photos are immediately taken down if that person objects.

Once in a while, Barstool goes so far over the line that it's shocking. For example, the comments on the site posted after the letter Carolyn Luby, one of the women in the UConn sexual assault case, wrote to President Herbst in 2013 about the Huskies logo were ugly and threatening.

Barstool founder David Portnoy, while always pointing out it's a humor site, can be pugnacious when challenged.

Still, he needs to recognize his words about ESPN announcer Sam Ponder three years ago making fun of her child, telling her she should sex it up and be slutty and not some prude jerk everybody hates, were cruel. On the eve of the ESPN show, Ponder, probably looking for revenge, brought this up on Twitter. She mistakenly identified Katz as saying the stuff. Katz did say, "I don't even think Christian Ponder [her husband] likes her."

Barstool traced a couple of stupid, off-color tweets by Ponder several years ago, and by the time it all ended, everybody was covered in mud.

"We do not control the content of Barstool Sports," ESPN VP Burke Magnus said. "We are doing a show with Big Cat and PFT, and we do have final say on the content of that show."

Everybody always agrees on drama. Nobody always agrees on comedy. Yet at a time when abusive treatment of women is forefront in everyone's mind, ESPN must live on that line of what is cruel and misogynistic and what is guy humor. Good luck ESPN, but, hey, you made the deal.

A moral compass, a balanced political view and a funny bone have to be found in that huge tent in Bristol. Everybody is watching to see if ESPN can do it.

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