Dave Portnoy, founder of the sports and pop culture app Barstool Sports, offered a few regrets but remained unapologetic during a virtual event Thursday at the University of Florida.
Invited by the Accent Speakers Bureau, an organization funded by UF student government, Portnoy spoke about his quest for authenticity and being a comedian, and said he does his best to make jokes that will make people laugh, not hurt them.
Portnoy, 45, has been deemed “pugnacious and pot stirring” by some, while others believe he comes from “a good, wholesome family.” Regardless of how he is viewed, Portnoy and Barstool Sports have grown as a celebrity and business and have a large national following.
Asked if he had any regrets when it came to his business, Portnoy said:
“I think I called a kid an ‘ugly fat kid,’” he said. “I wish I hadn’t said that.”
Referring to Black Lives Matter, he added: “I got some backlash about some BLM stuff. I wish I didn’t say that either. But I’m not going to apologize, because I had no intent to cause harm, but I do wish I had not said that.”
Accent had planned to have Portnoy appear at UF last March, but his visit was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Many in the UF community were critical of him being a speaker.
Chayston Brown, 18, and a freshman at UF, responded to a comment on the Accent Facebook page announcing Portnoy’s attendance, calling him “misogynistic and ableist.”
“The students’ money goes toward these speakers, and I believe a lot of women and POC would not agree to paying for him to be here,” Brown wrote while using a term for people of color.
“It makes it look like I support his actions because I am at this university and I’m indirectly paying for him to be here,” Brown added.
Natalie Tajeddine, another 18-year-old UF freshman, countered that she expected to gain knowledge from a “great mind” and “definitely a few laughs” during the event.
Portnoy founded Barstool Sports, a digital media company that produces content focused on sports and pop-culture, in 2003 in Milton, Massachusetts.
It started as a print publication in which Portnoy and his co-workers offered fantasy sports advice and published gambling advertisements in the Boston area. The company grew after he moved his publication to online, and it has expanded outside of the sports industry and now includes different podcasts, blogs, and most recently, the Barstool Fund, a major fundraising effort.
In its Facebook post, Accent stated that Portnoy “has raised nearly 30 million dollars to support small businesses across the country who are struggling due to the coronavirus pandemic.”
Kunal Navani, 23, a UF alumnus, wanted to learn more about Portnoy’s financial success.
“I have a lot of respect for Dave,” Navani said. “I understand he’s seen as a controversial person, but I respect how he’s grown the Barstool brand, and what he’s doing with the Barstool Fund.”
With Portnoy’s success, however, also came backlash.
Videos and audio of him making jokes about race, gender and disabilities have led to allegations of racism, sexism and ableism. Some of the most well-known videos came from a Twitter thread of him using racial slurs, and of him saying Colin Kaepernick, the former NFL quarterback most known for kneeling while the national anthem was played before games, looked like a terrorist.
“It is clear that these means include racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia,” said Scott Miller, 29, and a doctoral candidate in the university’s geological sciences department. “It doesn’t matter to me whether it was a joke. There are literally tens of thousands of successful business people, philanthropists, and comedians who have not used such means to build their brand.”
During the event, Portnoy defended himself against sexism by explaining the higher number of women than men in his company’s executive office, including Erika Nardini as CEO.
Portnoy also spoke about how he grew his business from the ground up and the projects of which he is most proud. Known to many as “The Pizza Guy,” Portnoy created the “One Bite” app that compiles a list of the best pizza places in an area based on his personal rating. He said he is also proud of his recent involvement with Tik Tok and his “BFFs” podcast.
Ted Spiker, a professor and chair of the university’s journalism department, moderated the virtual discussion, which also included a selection of pre-written questions and a 15-minute Q&A after Portnoy’s talk.
Students wanted to know his favorite social media sites and a famous person he would like to hang out with.
TikTok and Instagram, he answered, and Jimmy Buffett.
The discussion ended with a reference to Portnoy’s tweet announcing he would be speaking at UF, in which he wrote that was “about to mold some young minds.”
His advice to young people?
“You have got to find something you like doing. I had a 9-to-5 job and I hated it, even though it brought in some money. Find something you truly enjoy and do not worry about money.”