SALISBURY — As the mother of a son who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at birth 20 years ago, Sue Mitchell gives everyone fair warning.
“My nickname is Mama Bear,” said Mitchell. “And when my claws come out, they are sharp.”
Mitchell’s claws were drawn last Tuesday night when her son Sean was photographed off a NESN broadcast of a Bruins game eating a hot dog without a bun — he is unable to eat a bun. The awkward photo was posted on the popular website Boston Barstool Sports, which caters to male-centric, locker room humor. Sean was described as being “savage” for eating the hot dog in such a manner, and quickly the photo generated numerous denigrating comments.
“All because Sean ate a hot dog without a roll, this has completely exploded,” said Mitchell. “We are not looking for attention. We did not ask for this. But I will not sit back and sweep it under the rug.”
That incident has begun an effort by the Mitchells and their legion of supporters to draw attention to mean-spirited posts made on social media, and to make their authors more accountable for their actions.
The effort began almost immediately after the photo was posted. Friends of the Mitchells saw the photo as well and emailed the site. Within an hour, the photo and blog post were taken down by Barstool Sports owner and founder, David Portnoy.
“He looked like your average 20-year-old guy and that is right in our wheelhouse,” said Portnoy. “That is exactly what we post. That’s what we do. There was no malicious intent and I did everything that I could after to make it go away.”
Portnoy also called the Mitchells to apologize.
“He is sorry,” Mitchell said of Portnoy. “He did apologize, he was sincere. He said to take his number and keep him in mind if we ever had a fundraiser, if we ever needed a donation for Special Olympics, he would be more than happy to help.”
“I am sorry I hurt this kid’s feelings,” said Portnoy. “It’s harmless fun, at least that’s what we thought we were having. It didn’t turn out that way. I feel terrible. Who wants to make someone feel that way? That’s not what we try to do. It was an innocent mistake that was rectified immediately.”
But what Portnoy couldn’t take back were the comments Mitchell had seen written by anonymous readers in the blog’s comment section before they were taken down.
“We are more upset with the comments that were coming in from viewers,” said Mitchell. “You can only imagine the comments that were coming in. We are going to take a stand. Enough is enough. When is there a line drawn where the social media needs to take responsibility for its actions?”
They first reached out to The Daily News, which published a story on Thursday describing the Mitchells’ outrage over the posts and Portnoy’s response. Portnoy had not yet apologized to the Mitchells when they contacted the News.
Portnoy quickly came under fire from numerous people who criticized him for allowing the photo to be posted. He in turn reposted the photo and wrote a lengthy response, criticizing The Daily News and defending his website.
The Mitchells turned to friends and supporters to carry their message on regarding social media, asking them to contact a wide range of media to bring the issue to the public’s attention. On Friday, a Boston news station picked up the story and came to Sean’s alma mater, Triton Regional High School.
“What if that was your son or daughter? How would you feel?” Mitchell asked the TV crew. “Words hurt. Words kill. There is a line. I’m not just talking about Barstool Sports. I’m talking about social media.”
Once the interview was over, the Mitchells were given quite a surprise: an impromptu assembly of students and teachers in the auditorium, all wearing green to show their support.
“It was so overwhelming,” said Mitchell. “The staff were in green, the students were in green and they were all chanting ‘Sean’ when they came in.”
Mitchell also said that plenty of students told Sean they would eat a hot dog without a bun with him anytime.
“He knows he didn’t do anything wrong and never to change,” Mitchell said of her son. “To be himself.”
The Boston Barstool website has been described as focusing on “sports/smut.” It caters particularly to young men, with whom it has a following numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It’s also proved lucrative to Portnoy, a 1995 graduate of University of Michigan. He is reported to be worth in excess of $2 million.
Portnoy is no stranger to controversy. In 2011, he posted a photo showing New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s nude toddler son on a beach. The photo caused an uproar, and Portnoy finally removed it from his site after state police visited him. They were investigating whether the photo violated child exploitation laws.
Portnoy said that he and his team have been looking into better ways to police their comment sections but at the moment, it is a fact of life in the Internet age.
“I hate our comment section,” admitted Portnoy. “They are the lowest of the low. But that’s an internet thing. Go look on YouTube, go look on Boston.com, go look on ESPN. Look anywhere, they are out of control. It’s like fighting the tides coming in.”
While Portnoy remained contrite about the incident, he refused to apologize for the site itself.
“I don’t apologize for Barstool,” said Portnoy. “We don’t apologize for what we do, the brand of humor that we do. None of that I apologize for. I wish that the photo of that kid hadn’t been posted because of the trauma that it caused to the kid. He sounds like a good kid.”