North Carolina’s 18 Division I universities remain largely silent on the issue of betting-related harassment of student-athletes.
In the lead-up to the launch of online sports betting in North Carolina, NCSharp reached out to the athletic departments of all 18 D-I schools in the state with two questions about betting-related harassment occurring in person and online:
- What regulations would North Carolina universities like to see around bettors who heckle/threaten student-athletes for gambling-related reasons?
- How should athletics departments prepare their athletes to handle this kind of abusive behavior?
Of the 18 universities contacted, five declined to comment and 12 did not respond. Dr. Michele Malkin, an assistant professor of criminal justice at the Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences at East Carolina University, took time to discuss integrity officers, fans versus betting hecklers and the difficulty state regulators face in curbing harassment.
As the North Carolina Lottery Commission, the regulator of the sports betting industry, begins the work of establishing North Carolina responsible gambling protocol for such things as betting-related harassment, it is NCSharp’s goal to report the interests of North Carolina communities directly and indirectly involved in the industry.
NC online sports betting presents new challenge for in-state universities
At this early stage in North Carolina’s online sports betting lifespan, a common response NCSharp receives from many organizations, not just universities, is that with so little information available, it is difficult to make definitive statements on the industry.
The NCLC only hired a sports betting director, Sterl Carpenter, a few weeks ago. It has not yet held a meeting with sports betting on the agenda, and the NC Lottery’s sports betting webpage has no meetings scheduled at this time.
As such, North Carolina organizations that may be affected by the launch have little more to go on than the language of the online sports betting law and their knowledge of how the industry operates in other states.
It is, thus, understandable why Western Carolina University deferred comment by acknowledging the “relatively new development” of legal online sports betting and said it needed more time to interrogate.
Further, Elon University’s decision to decline comment as it was “still examining the potential impact from this legislation” also makes sense.
New NCAA sports betting regulations have been handed down as well, and schools are still grappling with the shifting sand of the industry.
Dr. Michelle Malkin leans into betting-related harassment
“Harassment is nothing new for athletes,” Dr. Michelle Malkin explains. “If you’re taking a big shot, you’ve got people riding your every action, and you’re going to hear it if you let them down. There’s always been this kind of pressure.”
Malkin, of course, is talking about passionate fans. The types with a closet full of jerseys, who live and die by a free throw and refer to their team as a “we.”
Athletes have been dealing with them forever.
“There’s a different type of heckler now,” Malkin says. “They’re not necessarily fans. Instead of feeling a connection to the team because of a love of the game, they feel like they’re on the team because they’re spending money on the team’s – and sometimes just a player’s – success.”
The addition of having money on a game gives bettors a different vested interest in the game, and Malkin underscored that it is not one of love and passion for a team. It’s a cold, transactional relationship, and the players in the game become something akin to employees.
This is why betting-related harassment is so dangerous. Bettors care about winning money, and their passion is void of compassion for the players taking the shots. As a result, the types of heckling athletes face from these people can be vitriolic, cruel and terrifying when paired with threats.
Student-athletes need “integrity advocate” when facing harassment
Betting-related harassment is nothing new, but it is now more prolific than ever. Since the overturning of PASPA – the Supreme Court decision that removed Nevada’s sports betting monopoly – in 2018, athletes have seen an influx of social media communication from bettors.
Student-athletes and the universities they attend are understandably the most vulnerable.
“Colleges are stressed about it and have loads of instances of athletes being abused,” Mark Potter, head of delivery for Epic Risk Management, an international problem gambling advocacy group, told ESPN in March. “One college had over 200 [instances].”
The NCAA addressed the problem in its May newsletter, stating, “The NCAA is committed to tracking how the uptick in sports wagering is impacting student-athletes, especially their mental health, due to increasing reports of athletes being harassed by individuals engaging in sports betting.”
The focus on mental health is one Malkin also takes seriously.
“Young people are less prepared to handle this kind of heckling,” she said. “They don’t always have an avenue on campus to report it, and there is a bigger question of whether or not the school has a policy for how this integrity reporting gets done.”
Whether a student-athlete gets flooded with social media threats after missing (or making) a big shot, gets shouted at on the sidelines by an angry bettor or gets approached by someone bribing them to throw a game, Malkin would like to see schools designate an “integrity officer” to whom athletes can disclose this harassment without fear of reprisal or backlash.
“Athletes need someone who is, first, approachable and, second, that they feel comfortable enough to confide in,” Malkin said. “This person also should be in the athletics department so they understand the nature of college sports. This should not just be a job duty tacked on to a professor’s pre-existing workload.”
An integrity officer, the way Malkin spells it out for ECU and beyond, would be part counselor, part coach and part adviser. The person would help students answer the difficult question: “This incident happened to me. What am I supposed to do?”
How state regulators can assist in curbing betting-related harassment
The NCAA, which has seen an uptick in the amount of betting on college campuses, acknowledges the importance of local institutions –the universities themselves –handling threats made to student-athletes online and in person: “The national office is actively working more broadly with public safety officials to determine additional ways to respond to this concerning trend.”
One way Malkin sees state involvement facilitating this response is through a state “integrity officer with a direct line to the NCAA.”
Such a person could take inventory of the state universities’ sports betting concerns for the NCAA and provide valuable oversight and training to those integrity officers on campus.
It’s not only D-I schools that could use a statewide integrity officer, Malkin stressed.
“D-II schools may not have the resources to devote to integrity officers on campus,” she said. “They may also lack the training and experience with the types of harassment facing student-athletes. This is where a statewide position could be beneficial in coaching those athletic departments through the process of developing integrity programs.”
Harassment is a difficult problem to stop
The reality is that state regulators may not be well suited to handle the lion’s share of betting-related harassment that occurs online.
“If the heckler is out of state, this could be a federal offense,” Malkin said. “This is sometimes impossible to know and why it is so difficult to regulate harassment.”
Indeed, the FBI has the problem on its radar, telling ESPN that it sees the phenomenon as a “growing issue” where threats to student-athletes are concerned. Then there’s the high-profile case of Ben “Parlay” Patz, who racked up some significant sports betting wins and accrued thousands of followers online but did some equally significant damage to pro and collegiate athletes via social media betting harassment. The FBI investigated him, and Patz inevitably pleaded guilty to sending threatening messages online.
Sports integrity organizations have launched online betting-related harassment platforms that allow agencies to assess and pass along cases to the correct authorities, whether state or federal.
These are the same third-party agencies that have created programs for student-athletes to input their personal information to be distributed to sportsbooks nationwide to exclude them from placing bets.
While the synergy between the public and private sectors could solve some of the betting-related problems facing student-athletes, the need to make sure those athletes are seen and heard on their own campuses and by their own state is central to ensuring their mental health.
When will NC universities take a stand on betting-related harassment?
Some states have already invested in programs to help student-athletes navigate the challenges they face from the new breed of hecklers.
Colorado launched the “Athlete Wellbeing Program” in April through $215,000 in grant funding. Sports betting has been legal in the state since May 2020.
The North Carolina sports betting law allocates $2 million a year to fight problem gambling in North Carolina. Hannah Jones, press assistant at the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said the law “directs the department to pursue best practices for treating, preventing and mitigating potential harms surrounding legalized sports gambling and provides funding to expand programs and services.”
NCSharp sees the growing trend of betting-related harassment of student-athletes as one such trend deserving attention.
In a state with many high-profile D-I athletic programs and a legal collegiate betting market, North Carolina student-athletes represent a sizable chunk of all NCAA athletes impacted by legal sports betting. Their experiences will tell the story of most student-athletes, and North Carolina’s response to these stories could put them at the vanguard of the fight against betting-related harassment.
Need someone to talk to about problem gambling?
More Than A Game is a gambling assistance program that gives North Carolinians a number of easy ways to get in touch and receive support. Run by the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, More Than A Game can be reached in the following three ways:
- Phone: 877-718-5543
- Text: Send phrase morethanagamenc to 53342
- Live chat: Via morthanagame.nc.gov
Image: Chris Seward / AP photo