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Editorial: One league, under Barstool: The PHF’s near-miss at partnering with a media menace

And this is all I’ll have to say about that.

A Day In The Life Of The New York Riveters Women’s Hockey Team Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

It seems like much ado about nothing at first glance — at least, it does if you know nothing about the saga leading up to this most recent development in the PHF’s relationship with media outlet Barstool Sports.

Yes, Barstool Sports, the site that seems to revel in its status as an “outlaw” in the media world despite maintaining a high-profile presence within the sports world by partnering with betting sites, alcohol companies, even professional sports teams themselves. The site that was mentioned in posts on multiple news outlets, as early as 2017, calling out problematic behavior by its employees and founder dating back to at least a decade ago: behavior involving misogyny, sexualization of minors, racism, and other various forms of bigotry. That Barstool Sports.

A recent post by The Victory Press reported the Premier Hockey Federation (then called the National Women’s Hockey League) was apparently in talks with Barstool CEO Erika Nardini to purchase not one, but as many as three teams in negotiations back in late 2020, including a potential expansion team in Detroit. That means almost half the league would have been under the Barstool name, or at least the name of someone associated with it, giving Nardini and thus the site itself significant weight within the PHF.

The evidence is slim but present — unspecified “correspondence” and a salty Instagram screenshot from Nardini following the hailstorm of controversy that ensued in late January. That controversy had to do with a harassment campaign led by Barstool against PHF fans, media, and employees — including then-Riveters rookie Saroya Tinker who unequivocally rejected any kind of ties to the media outlet. That statement led to the site’s president (who I’m not giving any kind of shine to here by mentioning his name), and I kid you not, calling for Tinker, a Black woman, to be thrown in jail.

It was then and only then, during the Lake Placid “bubble” tournament, that the league decided to pull away from that association, and halfheartedly at that, with commissioner Ty Tumminia playing down the relationship between the league and the site and emphasizing that she can’t control which players want to throw their lot in with a bastion of bigotry. It truly seemed like she and the PHF wanted all of us to think that this was nothing serious, just a casual kind of thing. Sure, multiple players joined in on the dogpiling, and liked tweets dragging Tinker’s and others’ names, but that’s their choice. Sure, Nardini bought the Riveters lunch for the trip to Lake Placid and had a couple of their players on her podcast, but so what? It didn’t mean anything.

And then they wonder why we have trust issues.

At the end of the day, my beef really isn’t with Barstool anymore. They are who they are, and they refuse to change — in fact, if anyone from that camp sees this post, they’ll probably get off on the attention and use it as fuel for another hate campaign. It is what it is. My quality filters are on for a reason.

No, my issue is with the league’s complete refusal to own the relationship it was looking to get into with this pile of excrement in the first place, seeing fit to deflect, evade, and excuse at every opportunity. Obviously this is an organization concerned about its image, and that concern is more than likely what caused it to step back and distance itself from Barstool — more than any threat it threw at one of its most outspoken players. The fact that the league ultimately did so is a relief, but just imagine if Tinker hadn’t said something. Imagine if the league went the route of so many of its male counterparts and just turned a blind eye to all of the feedback. We may have had to deal with PHF team owner Erika Nardini after all. And the PHF leadership’s complete hands-up, I-didn’t-do-nothing refusal to ’fess up to the details of the conversations they had is what irks me.

Even more irksome is the refusal of individuals to own up as well. Sure, the league isn’t really in control of what its players/employees do, but that doesn’t mean it can’t influence those choices. And while you have Nardini over here like a jilted lover outside the proverbial apartment building, people like Tumminia — like Anya Packer, like other players — are just pointing down the line and telling us they had nothing to do with it.

Packer posted an “explanation” earlier in the week after Mike Murphy was called out about a tweet referring to Kelly Babstock without referencing Babstock’s friendship with the site. That statement put the onus on prior management, who OK’d Babstock (and Rebecca Russo) to appear on Nardini’s podcast ahead of last season and didn’t really explain what the team is doing now to ensure no one is ever again in a position like Tinker was.

Now, you can argue that they don’t owe that to us, but when you have patches on your jerseys that say “End Racism,” when you make a point of tweeting about books you’re reading to further enhance your education of how white supremacy informs everything in our society, and when your league in fact has taken the “Get Uncomfortable” pledge with Black Girl Hockey Club and doesn’t really seem to want to get very uncomfortable regarding the self-reflection it’s in need of undertaking ... I’m sorry, but it all sounds like a lot of copping out and very little actual accountability.

It doesn’t matter who did what or didn’t do what. It doesn’t matter that you feel like one friendship with the CEO of a terrible media company isn’t a tacit approval of the entire entity. When you represent something larger than yourself, those things have meaning. And while I have a lot of care and respect for everyone I’ve mentioned here, I am tired of excuses. I am tired of the dismissal and the refusal to call things what they are. And, quite frankly, I’m goddamn tired of this conversation.

This is the last time I’ll be saying anything related to that site or this topic. The league knows what it needs to do to be better, and if it’s not willing to do it, then I’m not wasting my words. Just remember that you are all in a position to be much, much different from those who came before you — and now, you need to decide if the exposure, the money, the clout, are worth more than your principles.