Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

The Ballad of Clay Travis

#DBAP(F): Don’t Be A Pandemic Fraudster.
April 10, 2020
The Ballad of Clay Travis
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Last month, Clay Travis’ podcast had the most listeners since its inception.

This is noteworthy since Travis is a sports journalist and his podcast is, ostensibly, a show about sports. And there haven’t been any sports in America since March 11.

How did Travis build his audience at a time when total podcast downloads, nationally, are down?

Like many other businesses, Travis’ has had to reorient its product offering. For instance, you may have seen that most restaurants switched their focus to take-out and delivery. And that movie studios have abandoned the theatrical release and sent films straight to video on demand.

It’s Business School 101. When you’ve been disrupted, you find other pathways to viability.

Clay Travis decided that, in the absence of sports, he could find a market niche by offering pseudo-scientific rants about how the media was overhyping coronavirus. He told listeners that the disease would only kill “a few hundred people” and that he doesn’t “believe it is going to impact hardly any of us at all.”

And it turns out, however off-base this was as a moral or intellectual matter, it was an excellent business decision.

Travis’ anti-media screeds found an audience of listeners looking to both have their political priors validated and an enemy they were comfortable hating. Which is how this unlikely sportscaster found himself as one of the most prominent voices lecturing the media over their anti-Trump “fear porn” and telling Americans to just “chill out” when it comes to COVID-19.

True, all of this made Travis a notable contributor to the misinformation campaign that led many people to not take COVID-19 seriously. And yes, at least 16,000 Americans are now dead from the virus in spite of the dramatic actions we’ve taken to stem its spread.

But as the great Nick Naylor once said, everyone’s got a mortgage to pay.

For those of you who’ve never heard of Clay Travis until just now, a quick primer and a personal disclosure.

Travis is a multimedia sports news personality with a successful empire that includes a website, a podcast, a streaming social media show, a radio show, appearances on Fox Sports, and more. He first gained notoriety writing a truly entertaining book, Dixieland Delight, chronicling his travels to SEC campuses over the course of a college football season, while still working as a lawyer. Off the success of the book he dropped his day job and began writing full-time for sports sites such as Deadspin (RIP) and AOL Fanhouse (also RIP).

I became a fan of Travis’ work at first because I remembered him from college: We both attended George Washington University in the aughts. He was a few years ahead of me and though I didn’t know him IRL, we both were frequent posters on the school’s basketball message board, (one more RIP).

I spent years parroting his football gambling picks and finally connected with him in 2015 to see if he’d have my former boss, Jeb Bush, on his podcast. Since then we’ve messaged on and off about politics and the crucible of sport. I once floated the idea of doing a sports and politics project together, we messaged about it once or twice and it never went anywhere.

So that’s the disclaimer: I knew him a little bit and was a pretty big fan of his work.

In 2011, Travis saw an opening in the sports media market and launched the site Outkick The Coverage. It was modeled after Bill Simmons ESPN Page 2 and took a more fan-focused, irreverent, and gambling centric approach to covering football, particularly the SEC. It was great.

As the site grew, Travis saw an opportunity to expand his reach with anti-PC hot takes at the intersection of sports, politics, and culture under the moniker #DBAP. That stood for “Don’t Be a Pu$$y.” To guys of a certain age and disposition, this was hilarious.

But it was also a smart business move. Travis recognized that the audience he had built off of SEC football takes was feeling alienated by a mainstream sports media that they saw as increasingly liberal, “woke,” and fundamentally hostile to their world view. There was a disconnect in the market. The legion of readers on an SEC football site were far more culturally conservative than the writers and TV personalities at the Washington Post, or Sports Illustrated, or a certain Bristol-based media company.

In 2015 as Trump’s political fortunes rose and the Colin Kaepernick controversy enveloped the sports-talk world, Travis became these peoples’ champion.

He trashed Kap and windmill dunked on the worst ESPN moves—like when they took the Asian-American announcer Robert Lee off of a UVA broadcast for fear of some sort of Confederate backlash.

From there, Travis waded into more straight political and cultural commentary, taking stances that made alt-right adjacent trolls giddy. For instance, he opposed Vanderbilt University’s decision to take the word “Confederate” off of one of their campus buildings. As he got more and more attention, he eventually decided to go full edge lord. He asked ESPN if they’d take Caitlyn Jenner’s ESPY away if she transitioned back to being a man. He said the word “boobs” in an appearance on CNN.

For a lot of people who followed Clay from the start, this was a notable shift. After all, he wasn’t a natural political ally to your median MAGA-hatted ’Bama fan. Travis had voted for Barack Obama, worked for a Democrat on the Hill when he was in school at GW, and had claimed he had never voted Republican in his life. He self-identified as a “radical moderate.”

This background gave him the patina of credibility even as he was serving meat red enough that it would consistently fit right in on Fox prime time.

This dramatic pivot makes one wonder where the earnestness of the shift ended and the business incentive began. After all, I don’t know too many other George Washington University alums who have gone from voting for Obama to being anti-anti-Confederate. But people change. Maybe he was the classic liberal who was mugged by reality.

But more likely, we should just take his word for it when he says he wants to make $50 million in his career. He saw the market opportunity with his audience. He noticed that Barstool Sports—a vastly inferior product run by a bunch of mouthbreathing idiots (Note:Pardon My Take bros excepted)—was valued at $163 million. I mean, even if you don’t like Clay, he’s not a dummy. The dude can count.

By 2020, Clay was an experienced conservative sports talk iconoclast, quick to identify and latch on to controversies which he could adopt as personal causes and—by total coincidence—could function as brand extensions. So when the pansy sports leagues began cancelling games over the hoax foreign China Flu and the libtard media ganged up on Donald Trump for his heroic attempt to keep the stock market steady by saying it was no big deal, it became clear that coronavirus trutherism was a natural fit for him.

Travis first mentioned the virus in January, observing that it was “crazy in general how it’s taken off” before his periscope feed cut out. He then mentioned it a few times in the ensuing weeks with macabre humor, noting that you did not want to be stuck on a corona cruise ship and offering prayers to a former guest who came down with the virus.

On February 24, one day before CDC Director Nancy Messonnier issued the first ominous public warning from the federal government, Clay made his pivot. “Flu is far more dangerous than coronavirus” he tweeted. On his show that day he unleashed an epically wrong rant about how the virus is “overrated” and people are “overreacting”:

We are overreacting to this in general in the fear that this is going to be a global pandemic. Right now the infection rates and death rates do not appear to be inordinately higher than the flu . . . So if you are dumb enough to not understand exactly what is going on here, then frankly that is an indictment of your intelligence and you don’t deserve to be able to analyze anything or even comment on anything in my show therefore kiss off, you are dead . . . 40,000 people a year die in the United States driving cars. It’s unlikely in my opinion that more than a few hundred at most will die from the coronavirus in the United States.

So let’s take a look at his opening bid:

  • We are overreacting to possibility of global pandemic (wrong)
  • Infection and death rates similar to flu (wrong)
  • Unlikely that more than a few hundred will die in U.S. (tragically wrong)
  • You are an idiot if you think otherwise (self refuting)

You’d think someone who was arrogantly dismissive of the death and despair that has been caused by this virus being proven to have been so humiliatingly off-base from the start would grimace, look over both shoulders to see if anyone noticed, and then quietly go back to talking about sports and which quarterbacks have the hottest girlfriends.

Look we’ve all been embarrassingly wrong about stuff and in the middle of a pandemic, it’s easy not to be your best self. Had he done that, there’d have been no harm, no foul.

But that’s not what happened.

Instead, he noticed that the ad revenue $ machine was going brrrrroar. So he started moving the goalposts.

This week the same guy who predicted last month that there would be at most “a few hundred” deaths is condescendingly lecturing people about how, if they were intellectually honest, they would admit that any total under 2 million dead is a huge success for Donald Trump.

#DBAP, bitches.

Since February 24, the Clay Travis timeline has been almost like a parody of OAN. On February 28 he said that the stock market sell off was a “tremendous buying opportunity.” The market was at 25,409 that day. It bottomed out at 18,591 a month later on March 23. The best you could say of his advice is that it turned out to be nowhere near the best buying opportunity. The worst you could say about it is that someone who simply followed it might have lost their shirts.

On March 2, Travis tweeted a phrase that was to become his calling card, “chill out.” He went on. “Unless you’re over the age of 80 or already sick with something else your chances of dying from the coronavirus is virtually zero.” This is a pretty broad claim based on next to nothing. By all indications, it’s very wrong. The case-fatality rate is a moving target as data comes in and varies by geographic context, but the preliminary numbers suggest that:

  • If you’re in your 30s and are diagnosed with COVID-19, your chances of dying are in the range of 0.1 percent
  • In your 40s, it’s closer to 0.3 percent
  • In your 50s, it’s in the range of 0.5 percent to 1.0 percent
  • In your 60s, it’s somewhere near 2.0 percent to 3.0 percent
  • In your 70s, between 5.0 percent and 12 percent

So, you know, not “virtually zero” so long as you’re under 80. You would get on a plane that had a “virtually zero” percent chance of crashing. But if I told you that the flight you were about to board had a greater than 1-in-200 chance of going down, there’s no effing way you’d get on.

On his show that day he said “I do not believe that the coronavirus is going to destroy our country, I don’t believe that it’s going to impact hardly any of us at all.” At this point I think it would be hard to find someone who would say that they have been impacted hardly at all.

Following that episode Travis realized he had hit on viral gold. And thus he began his career as an arm-chair epidemiologist and immunologist saying on his podcast that “I believe I am incredibly well informed about the coronavirus” and tweeting about how similar COVID-19 was to other diseases, how low its death rate is, and how it is less contagious than the flu. Following the collapse of his initial prediction that at most a few hundred people might die, he boldly predicted that he would be “surprised” if the deaths “get into the thousands.”


Courtesy of the New York Times.

On his March 6 podcast, titled “Fear Porn,” Travis began to take on the issue of social distancing when the D3 College Basketball tournament banned spectators at Johns Hopkins University.

I do not believe that we should be cancelling sporting events. I am taking my kids next week to the SEC basketball tournament. I am scheduled in two weeks to travel down to Florida for vacation. Another part of my family is going to Colorado to ski. I think the fear is ahead of the reality.

It turned out, unfortunately, that the fear was behind the reality, and places that began distancing early have seen better results.

On March 9, Travis began leading his daily social media show with rants about coronavirus fear mongering in the media. He announced that he had bought stock again, bragged about how China had “stopped the spread of coronavirus”—this was back when repeating Chinese Communist propaganda was a good thing—reiterated that it is harder to get than the flu, and defended Donald Trump’s comment that the virus would go away when it got warmer.

“The country is not going to come to a screeching halt,” he emphasized.

Wrong again.

On March 10, Ohio Republican Governor Mike DeWine made the smart decision to recommend that there be no spectators at indoor sporting events, including the upcoming NCAA tournament “first four,” hosted in Dayton. Travis responded to DeWine tweeting, “people have lost their minds over the coronavirus. It’s a race to overreact.”

He joked that he would infect himself with the virus if they’d name an elementary school after him. He said that “If you are at home and you are making an anti-coronavirus outfit to wear into public, you have gone insane . . . You need to check yourself into an insane asylum.”

(This week the CDC recommended that all Americans wear masks in public.)

Six days after saying he would be “surprised” if U.S. deaths made it to four digits, Travis upped his proposed worst-case scenario to “a thousand.” If only.

He began his next show talking about the “corona crazies” and then compared people trying to slow the spread of a deadly epidemic to . . . well, see for yourself:

Everyone is competing to react the most to the coronavirus . . . i.e. The Ivy League is ahead of all other college athletics in making the most draconian moves possible in order so that they can say hey we are the most protected, we’ve got the most gear on, we are laying down everything and running in the opposite direction . . . it’s a contest to see who can surrender the most completely in the shortest amount of time. It’s like the French in WWII.

L’ erreur.

This timeline of wrongness would turn into the Magna Carta if I kept going, when you’re a multi-platform star like Clay, you have to generate a lot of content.

But you get the gist.

By mid-March Clay Travis’ view was that social distancing was for old people, people with obvious COVID-19 symptoms, and pussies. Neither the death rate nor total deaths would come anywhere near the flu, the economy was going to be just fine, and the vast majority of us will not be impacted at all.

So, you know, not great Bob.

A month later most of us are voluntary detainees in our homes as part of an inspiring—if weird—act of mass solidarity. We are not doing it because “fear porn” made us or because the blue check marks hate Donald Trump.

Millions of Americans are suffering economic hardship as a result of this detention and they are doing it so as to slow the spread of the virus, ease the burden on the healthcare system, and protect the lives of others. And by all projections, it’s working. The curve is flattening. The double-rate of the death toll is elongating. The numbers of new positive tests seems to be flattening—at the very least, the rate of increase seems to have slowed.

Most people did not take Travis’ call to #DBAP. And thank God.

And yet the guy who spent weeks insisting that we should do nothing, that it was all no big deal, that anyone concerned about the global pandemic was an idiot—that of course people should travel from around the country to pack themselves into a basketball arena at the height of a contagion—is now telling listeners that the positive results from everyone else’s sacrifices . . . prove him right?!

This is a phenomenon that anyone who has followed the anti-vaxxer movement understands well: The idiots who run around trying to wreck public health have the luxury to do so only because the rest of us have kept them and their loved ones safe by taking it seriously.

So the new Travis schtick is to put out “daily coronavirus positivity,” which is not, unfortunately, a celebration of the people risking their lives to rescue people from a virus that turned out to be far more serious than he anticipated.

No, his “daily positivity” is instead an opportunity for him to congratulate himself anytime the pile of bodies outside of hospitals is stacked slightly lower than it had been the day before. Good news everyone, only 636 deaths in Italy today. Great news folks, only 2,000 deaths now anticipated in Texas. Guess what, only 33,460 new cases of the virus in America today and just 1,940 new daily deaths down from 1,971, Roll Tide!

It’s now clear that there is no change of circumstance, or data or, reality that will force Travis into self-reflection. The fact that 16,000 Americans have died in less than six weeks—even with the most extreme suppression methods the country has ever imposed—makes no impression on him. The fact that there is a fundamental actuarial difference between non-contagious deaths, such as auto fatalities, and infectious disease deaths—because vehicular deaths do not self-propagate and spread geometrically—doesn’t register. The facts about what happens to hospitals and health care workers when a chart of weekly mortality looks like this rather than being spread out over the year isn’t going to break through.

And the reason none of that will register with Travis is the same as it is for Limbaugh. Or Hannity. Or Jones. Or the anti-vaxxers. Because there is an incentive structure which rewards them for it, so long as a critical mass of society ignores them and makes the sacrifices necessary to keep them from getting sick and dying in an overloaded ICU.

Which means the clicks keep coming in. The outrages are feigned. The priors are validated. The “fake news” media is owned. The grift goes on. The cause endures.

Hopefully next time the stakes are lower.


Don’t Be A Pandemic Fraudster.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said that Travis wrote for the sports website Fansided. That is incorrect, he wrote for AOL Fanhouse. 

Tim Miller

Tim Miller is The Bulwark’s writer-at-large and the author of the best-selling book Why We Did It: A Travelogue from the Republican Road to Hell. He was previously political director for Republican Voters Against Trump and communications director for Jeb Bush 2016.