Opinion: What Can Be Done About Bettors Harassing NCAA Athletes?

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You do not need to look very hard on Twitter to find someone who disagrees with you, and it is no different for teenagers playing NCAA sports.

Sometimes it is just someone looking to engage, and other times it is someone who has no intention of engaging and whose only interest is to ruin your day. While social media has opened a lot of doors for people to connect with friends they may have lost touch with or strangers who share an interest, it can also be an absolute hellscape filled with hate.

If you want a look at how terrible a place social media can be, all you have to do is scroll through the messages or replies on an athlete who misses a crucial shot or field goal. Most recently, discussion about the harassment of athletes has been thrust into the limelight again because of an incident involving online attacks against the University of Dayton men’s basketball team after it fell to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) after being up 14 points.

Harassment of athletes is not new, but there appears to be a sense amongst regulators and sports officials that it has been on the rise since the 2018 Murphy sports betting decision.

Long history of bad conduct

Threats against athletes from angry bettors and fantasy players pre-date the recent expansion of regulated sports betting outside of Nevada. This is hardly a problem isolated to the United States, but it is currently being thrust into the spotlight as regulators and sports officials are speaking out about the conduct.

Back in 2017, Richard Sherman spoke out prominently about the treatment that players in the NFL were receiving from some fantasy players, and how it seemed to him players were being devalued as human beings because of fantasy sports.

While harassment of athletes has seemingly always happened, the anonymity of the internet has created a greater shelter for people to spew hate. For all the opportunities of the internet, it has also served as an enabling mechanism for the worst personality traits of a segment of the population to come out.

Again, this is not an issue isolated to sports, or even the sports betting universe. But the sports betting world appears somewhat uniquely positioned to do something about the harassment.

Building to this point

It was just a few years ago that Darren Rovell and other reporters made a celebrity out of a young sports bettor named Ben Patz, who had an incredible run of success hitting seemingly impossible parlays. While Patz gained a lot of attention for his against-all-odds betting success, he was also being investigated by the FBI for a series of threats issued against professional and NCAA athletes, something he would eventually plead guilty to.

Most recently, it has been University of Dayton’s men’s basketball team was thrust into the spotlight after Coach Anthony Grant vented his frustration to reporters about the harassment that his players received following a disappointing loss to VCU.

Grant’s comments and frustration have caught not only national media attention but also the attention of at least one of the members of the Ohio Casino Control Commission, which happens to be emerging as one of the country’s vigilant regulators.

What to do about harassment of NCAA, pro athletes?

It should go without saying that no one should harass athletes; they do not care about your bet or your fantasy team. But if people continue to do so, there should be consequences.

The Ohio Casino Control Commission Executive Director reportedly suggested that bettors who are found to have harassed athletes online could be barred from betting in the state. This seems like a positive start.

While this would not eradicate harassers from betting, as we know that there are options other than the regulated market, the regulated market should take a stand against harassers and ensure to the extent possible they are excluded from participating until they are able to be rehabilitated.

Going a step farther

I would suggest going a step farther and mandating rehabilitative education for less egregious offenders. Harassers would first be issued a suspension that could be removed through a class similar to what states use for drivers arrested for driving under the influence. Later violations would see a loss of the ability to bet in the regulated market.

In order to add teeth to this type of measure, states should engage in information sharing across jurisdictions and promote the reciprocity of bettor bans.

While there is the possibility that minor offenders can be rehabilitated through education, the most egregious harassers like those threatening violence need to be prosecuted. Threats of violence should have zero tolerance.

While professional leagues have security divisions capable of investigating threats, the NCAA college sports universe needs to modernize and ensure that athletes not only have the resources to report harassment but know that they have the resources.

What can be done legally by states, schools, NCAA?

To the extent possible, states need to begin taking these threats seriously in order to prevent a tragedy.

The question of what can be done legally to put an end to this type of behavior remains somewhat murky, in situations outside of clear threats of violence. Threats of physical harm are punishable at both the state and federal (assuming there is an interstate aspect) levels.

Less explicit conduct could, however, rise to a level of criminal harassment. Again, online stalking and harassment are both prosecutable at both the state and federal level, assuming necessary facts are in place.

But as you have likely seen in terms of the general status of being online, prosecutions in this realm are not super-common, and almost certainly do not have the desired deterrent effect on many internet users.

NCAA schools themselves could also take action by banning online harassers from attending ticketed events. Despite many college campuses having public spaces, there is no general right to attend ticketed events, and therefore to the extent that harassers are fans who attend live games, they could be banned.

Where do we go from here?

The national sports gambling market is beginning to come of age. It is experiencing growing pains and hard lessons are being learned.

But a priority needs to be made of protecting athletes, especially at the NCAA level. If bettors cannot engage in betting responsibly, and that includes losing bets, regulators should not allow them to bet in the regulated market.

As anyone who spends five minutes on gambling Twitter should know, with complaints about being limited, there is no fundamental right to bet. It is a privilege, and if people cannot act responsibly, it should be taken away.

Another consideration would be to use some of the state tax revenue to better fund resources to increase prosecutions of gambling-related crimes, which undoubtedly include threats made against athletes.