Barstool Sports, a media company known for its crass and often questionable content, fired a writer Friday night after he posted an article joking about missing University of Utah student Mackenzie Lueck. Shortly after it was published, police announced charges against a man in her death.
On Friday morning, Francis Ellis posted a seemingly optimistic update based on that morning’s New York Post report that Lueck’s friends had noticed activity on her Instagram account Wednesday, more than a week after she went missing. Although he began the blog post reminding anyone who may have seen the missing woman to contact authorities, Ellis went on to focus on reports that claimed that Lueck used “sugar daddy” dating websites, which feature women looking for relationships with older men, according to images of the since-deleted post.
Ellis pointed out that Lueck’s Instagram profile suggested she was a fan of a Barstool-produced podcast. He also joked about some of the posts on an Instagram account Lueck’s profile had liked on Wednesday, a chilling detail in light of the revelation that the college senior was apparently killed earlier.
The post was deleted not long after it was published, and Barstool Sports editor in chief Keith Markovitch initially suggested in a tweet that Ellis would lose his ability to post to the site without any editorial review, to which Ellis replied with a meme. Barstool founder Dave Portnoy later posted a video announcing he had fired Ellis.
Portnoy called the decision to post the article “just an absolutely insane move” that showed “a ridiculous lack in judgment.”
“There’s certain things I can’t justify and can’t stand by,” the Barstool founder said. “I know he meant well with it, but it just doesn’t matter.”
Just before 1:30 p.m. Eastern time Friday, Salt Lake City Police Chief Mike Brown announced in a news conference that after nearly two weeks of searching for Lueck, authorities found her charred remains in the backyard of a man’s home in Salt Lake City. Ayoola Ajayi had been arrested that morning and faces four charges of aggravated murder, aggravated kidnapping, obstruction of justice and desecration of a body.
Ellis and Barstool chief executive Erika Nardini did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday.
Ellis was a writer for Barstool Sports and co-host of Barstool’s morning radio show on Sirius XM, and was “known for his dry, dark sense of humor,” according to the biography on his website. He also does stand-up comedy and performs comic songs on the piano.
After Portnoy announced his firing, Ellis issued an apology via Twitter, explaining that he wrote his blog post after reading the New York Post report of the Instagram activity and an earlier report that police did not suspect foul play.
“Carelessly, I assumed this meant Mackenzie was fine,” he wrote. “... Even if that hadn’t been the case, I simply should not have written about the story. It was a horrific mistake and I am deeply sorry to the Lueck family for their unfathomable loss.”
Ellis also said that before this indiscretion, “Barstool Sports gave me complete liberty to post my work without oversight.”
In a tweeted response to his firing, Nardini seemed to suggest that the site’s freewheeling editorial style may have to change.
“He is a unique talent and so gifted,” she wrote about Ellis. “In many ways he brought @barstoolsports into comedy. That said, there are things that will never, ever, ever fly and this blog was one. There are things we need to fix here.”
This isn’t the first time Barstool Sports, which Nardini has called “a comedy brand dressed up as a sports media site,” has come under fire for offensive statements. Last year, Patrick Connor, who co-hosted another Barstool radio show on Sirius XM, was fired by a different radio station for comments he made about Olympic snowboarder Chloe Kim, who was 17 at the time.
A recent episode of HBO’s “Real Sports” took aim at Barstool, with correspondent Soledad O’Brien challenging Portnoy on his past statements criticizing ESPN broadcaster Sam Ponder for showing her toddler on TV and calling on her to “be slutty.”