At Barstool, a one-woman revolt against ‘I won’t be offended’ clause
Say you interview for a job at an edgy media company. You take a closer look at the contract and see exactly what to expect at your new workplace: Exposure to material involving nudity, sexual scenarios, racial epithets, suggestive gestures, profanity, and stereotyping. Sign here if you’re still on board and can commit to not being offended.
Do you sign?
Elika Sadeghi did not. The sports personality turned down a two-year contract with the provocative bro website Barstool Sports this summer after balking at the language embedded in her contract.
On Thursday, she revealed that language on Twitter, without disclosing the name of the company. And the boss she’d turned down immediately outed himself and claimed victimhood, excoriating his accuser as an opportunist trying to get attention.
The quickening drumbeat of sexual harassment allegations, from last year’s presidential election to Fox News to Hollywood, has prompted women everywhere to speak out about their own stories of workplace harassment from the harrowing to the annoying. (One writer’s prompt — “When did you meet YOUR Harvey Weinstein?” — elicited more than 5,000 responses on Twitter in the days after claims were published about the Hollywood producer.)
However emboldened, though, individual women often find their revelations dismissed by those who question their motives for coming forward, their veracity, and their participation in industries in which they can be objectified.
“Elika knew what kind of company #Barstool was, contract should’ve been no surprise,” one woman wrote on Twitter.
Another woman called Sadeghi’s announcement “5 steps back for the female gender,” while using the hashtags #triggered and #snowflake. The latter is an epithet often aimed at liberals who melt easily at provocation.
Barstool Sports founder David Portnoy fumed about the revelation in a videotaped announcement on the website, saying the company does not tolerate sexual harassment. He said Sadeghi was capitalizing on the Hollywood scandal to edge her way into the spotlight.
“She’s trying to make herself part of this story. She said, to us, she never had the feeling that we treated anybody with disrespect,” Portnoy said on the video. “Ask the girls we have in the office. We have a ton of them. We don’t do that.”
Barstool Sports is an online sports and comedy site with the disparaging tone of talk radio and a page devoted to photos of scantily clad women. The Boston-founded company, which moved to Manhattan last year, has long had a reputation for unsubtle misogyny: Portnoy, who calls himself “El Presidente,” has previously offended rape victims with off-color jokes.
In an interview before hanging up on a Globe reporter, he said he had offered to withdraw or rewrite the contract clause to persuade Sadeghi to work there. (Sadeghi would not comment.)
The language that Sadeghi posted Thursday, which Portnoy described as “pretty boilerplate stuff” for the entertainment industry, had asked her to acknowledge that her work could expose her to offensive language — but that she wouldn’t be offended.
“I understand and acknowledge that as part of my job I may be exposed to speech and conduct that explicitly relates to sex, sexual orientation, gender, national origin, religion, disability and age,” the language stated.
“I expressly agree and represent that I do not object to being exposed to such speech and conduct and do not find it otherwise offensive or objectionable and that I am willing to work in such an environment.”
Sadeghi said on Twitter that she would have turned down the job, even if the language were eliminated.
“How could I work for them, knowing it exists?” she wrote. “But would I have walked, if I needed the money?”
She has since been named a cohost of pre- and post-NFL game shows for NextVR, which broadcasts live sports events in virtual reality.
Portnoy said that Barstool Sports began using such legal clauses after being bought last year by the Chernin Group, founded by former News Corp. president Peter Chernin.
“If we’re sitting in a writing room and we’re tossing around all sorts of jokes and trying to be funny, we definitely make off-color jokes,” said Portnoy. “It’s just to basically know you acknowledge what you’re getting yourself into.”
Or, as he put it in his video: “Like you work at ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you sign that.”
He went on to say that people who work at Barstool Sports can’t be offended by sexually vulgar jokes or “Jew jokes,” saying “we do it 24-7.”
A Los Angeles entertainment attorney said he has been advising his entertainment clients to adopt such language — in forms, if not in employment contracts — since he successfully defended Warner Brothers in a groundbreaking 2006 case involving alleged sexual harassment among writers on the TV comedy series “Friends.”
“It’s not a one-size-fits-all,” said the attorney, Adam Levin. “If you have bank tellers, you’re not going to have them sign this form. Because as a bank teller, being exposed to sexual speech is not a natural part of the job. But when you take a job in the motion picture industry or the advertising industry, then it’s a whole different matter.”
In the “Friends” case, the California Supreme Court ruled that vulgar comments reflected the “creative workplace” and were not directed at the woman who sued them. The employee had not signed an agreement, and such contract language has not been upheld in court, Levin said. However, he said, the court ruling was influenced by the fact that the woman had been warned she would be exposed to “coarse speech” on the job.
But several attorneys who handle sexual harassment cases said such language seems aimed at inoculating a company against future claims — essentially, blaming the victim for not having raised objections when she was hired.
“In a typical sexual harassment case, the individual who’s claiming to be harassed needs to actually feel that they’ve been exposed to harassment, and it needs to have impacted them in some way. If they’re not offended by it, that takes away that aspect of sexual harassment and a hostile work environment,” said Monica Shah a partner in the Boston law firm of Zalkind Duncan & Bernstein.
She questioned whether a clause like the one proposed by Barstool Sports could be legally enforceable.
“What they’re trying to do is to say a raunchy environment is part of our business model,” said Steven Rubin, a plaintiff’s employment attorney in Los Angeles. “I find that very, very questionable.”
The CEO of Barstool is a woman, Erika K. Nardini, who vigorously defended the company’s culture in her own tweets on Thursday. Nardini, who did not respond to requests for comment, said that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for harassment but that its unique brand of comedy “means that we can sometimes easily offend.”
“Everyone who works at Barstool is committed to making it the best it can be,” Nardini wrote. “People who don’t want to do that shouldn’t work here.”