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“There are no rules,” Barstool Sports’ David Portnoy once said. “I do what I want. When I want. All the time. Those are the only fucking rules that there are at this company.”
Those comments came nearly three years ago in an “emergency press conference” staged by Portnoy, who took Barstool from a blog founded in 2003 and built it into a mini-empire of radio shows, podcasts and digital content. On Jan. 29, Barstool was given a startling valuation. On that day, Portnoy announced that he had sold a 36 percent interest in his bro network for $163 million to Penn National Gaming, a regional gambling provider, implying that Barstool Sports was worth nearly a half a billion dollars. With new investors come new rules, or at least some expectations. Portnoy may have made a name for himself by attempting to intimidate anyone who got in his way, but according to Penn National senior vice president Eric Schippers, the harassment of others would be coming to an end.
“We have done our due diligence and are confident that [Barstool Sports] understands the importance of our new relationship and has the right guardrails in place to ensure that their comments won’t negatively reflect on Penn or the gaming industry in general,” Schippers told BillyPenn.com.
Whether or not Portnoy proves himself capable of behaving remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Barstool Sports faces a court examining its past conduct, in particular the disintegration of Barstool’s relationship with actor Michael Rapaport. This feud could serve as Exhibit A of just how nasty cyber-culture has become in the 21st century.
On Monday night, Rapaport filed summary judgment papers in his breach-of-contract and defamation lawsuit against the company. He discusses why he joined Barstool Sports back in 2017, expectations for what he’d provide, and the alleged harm that ensued when those affiliated with Barstool claimed he was a racist, a domestic abuser and a D-list actor with a sexually transmitted disease. Rapaport’s court papers also nod to depositions given by Barstool’s leaders, including one from Portnoy, who considered his company “in a war” with Rapaport.
According to Rapaport, he was interested in hosting a daily radio show. By 2017, the actor, who has starred in more than 100 movies and television shows over the course of his three-decade career, had built up a reputation as a sports fanatic. He was regularly making appearances on sports radio, and in one email from Portnoy, the Barstool Sports founder called him a “huge name” that “fit perfectly with [Barstool’s] style of comedy.”
“I was hired based on my podcast, rants, sports media and social media personality,” states Rapaport in a declaration. “That’s what attracted me to them. There were no provisions from the hiring or courtship. They especially wanted me to be a bombastic ‘bad guy’ around the ‘Rough N’ Rowdy’ PPV fights for promotion and to attract viewership.”
Rapaport’s deal with Barstool Sports entitled him to $200,000 for video “rants” posted online and $400,000 for a podcast, according to the complaint in the case. Rapaport also says he got a big share of revenue and merchandise, plus additional money for other specials, including $40,000 for the production of a video for DraftKings, a daily fantasy sports site. He also allegedly was promised “good faith efforts” he’d get to host his own show on SiriusXM, but he says that opportunity never came, nor a $375,000 guarantee. Much of his suit targets the various ways that Barstool allegedly breached its payment obligations.
But that’s not what makes the dispute a spectacle, especially amid Barstool’s other cyber-harassment controversies.
Rapaport alleges that just months into his deal, Barstool made the decision not to renew the relationship. Worse, he claims that Barstool engineered a “coordinated assault” to get out of the existing talent agreement.
“Following BSI’s decision not to retain Mr. Rapaport, BSI employees, personalities and bloggers began a systematic campaign to publicly and privately discredit, disparage and undermine Mr. Rapaport’s relationship with BSI as well as his credibility as an actor and performer,” states an amended complaint.
The actor found himself the subject of a “diss track” that claimed he had abused his ex-girlfriend. He witnessed photographs popping up on social media — “several photoshopped and falsified” — that made it appear as if he were suffering from herpes. Barstool began selling T-shirts of him with a clown nose and a herpes sore beneath his lower lip. In other blog posts, such as “Michael Rapaport Is A Fraudulent Sack Of Shit” and “Sad Story: D List Actor With A Slight STD Problem Traps Plane Of Innocent Travelers Inside,” the invective came loose and fast.
“Barstool’s founder, Defendant Portnoy, admits to actual malice, admitting not only that Defendants had no basis to make these false statements, but that they made them to ruin Mr. Rapaport’s career, and to embarrass and humiliate him,” states a new summary judgment motion. “He also admits that, even if he knew the statements to be false, he would not apologize to Mr. Rapaport or retract the statements. When questioned publicly about the truth of these statements, Defendants went a step further and stated that the statements they made about Mr. Rapaport were true: ‘That’s all we spit. Truth and justice baby. Truth and justice.'”
In a declaration, Rapaport denies having herpes. He says he’s never been charged with stalking, nor with domestic violence. He says he never has hit a woman and doesn’t consider himself to be a racist. His other court papers suggest that the tag of being a racist and a fraud were designed to alienate him from African-American fans and to ruin his career in Hollywood. He says his podcast rating went from 4.5 stars to 1.5 stars, and he was unable to attract sponsors for a new television show.
He also says Barstool’s campaign against him made him suffer in other ways. “Physically this has been detrimental to my compromised immune system, as I am inflicted with Ulcerative Colitis,” he says in a declaration.
Barstool tells a different story in its own court papers.
The defendant argues that Rapaport is “defamation-proof” because, among other things, he allegedly had a reputation for having herpes before the objectionable statements were made. Barstool also says he is “well known for having a criminal background,” referencing an incident where after an actress broke up with him, he called her 21 times, showing up at her apartment at 1 a.m. and eventually getting arrested. “Rapaport ultimately pled guilty to aggravated harassment,” writes Barstool’s lawyer.
Barstool also maintains that his talent agreement barred him from making statements that would bring the company into disrepute — and that he allegedly violated such provision by starting his own feuds with fellow employees and attacking “stoolies,” otherwise known as fans of the company’s content. For example in one tweet, Rapaport wrote, “[I]f you call yourself a fucking stoolie for real, you’ve already lost in life.”
Did Rapaport breach the morals clause of a company that prided itself on a lack of rules? For his part, Rapaport says he was never asked to tone down his behavior.
“As a brand, Barstool actively promotes itself through controversy,” adds the summary judgment motion. “Barstool encourages this controversy both among its employees and against third parties. The Talent Agreement recognizes this controversy, noting ‘Barstool encourages you to be you, and recognizes that certain topics may generate controversy.’ While Barstool has received significant public criticism for its self-inflicted controversies, no employees have been punished for this.”
Besides Rapaport’s own declaration (read here), a dermatology report and a text message chain between him and Portnoy, this controversy has produced all kinds of expert reports lodged in New York federal court. Rapaport has submitted ones about Barstool’s brand, its sphere of influence, and a damages assessment of $16.4 million, among others.
Barstool will respond to the summary judgment motion before the matter goes to U.S. District Court Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald, who will decide whether a trial is needed.
“Barstool doesn’t shy away from controversy, but Michael Rapaport’s problem was that he bit the hand that fed him,” responds Aaron Moss, Barstool’s lead litigation counsel in the Rapaport matter. “No company in its right mind would continue to employ talent that ridiculed its entire fan base by calling them losers, which is exactly what Rapaport did here. As for defamation, it’s incredibly ironic that Michael Rapaport, the self-proclaimed ‘king of trash talk,’ would file a lawsuit over a Twitter feud. While you would never know it from his motion, this is a guy who, among many other things, publicly posted a photo of him anally raping Dave Portnoy and who said of a then-19 year old Barstool personality that she ‘got [his] Pipe.’”
Moss doesn’t stop there, adding, “This is a guy who has been suspended from Twitter for his misogynistic remarks, who pled guilty for aggravated harassment of an ex-girlfriend, and who has been accused by African-American cultural publications as having a ‘hobby of castigating black women’ and of being the ‘worst kind of racist.’ Rapaport has publicly acknowledged that it looked like he had herpes in a widely publicized photo over which he has been ridiculed for years before joining Barstool. As we’ve said from the beginning, this lawsuit is nothing but a schoolyard squabble that has no business being in federal court, and we look forward to bringing our own motion for summary judgment soon.”
Richard Busch, attorney for Rapaport, retorts, “We have seen Mr. Moss’s statement, and we are simply not going to take the bait and litigate this case in the press. It is just not appropriate. We will be making our case to the Court and to the jury.”
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