Gambling-related harassment has become a lamentable by-product of the expansion of sports betting. As North Carolina advances toward launch, regulators must take measures to protect student-athletes from the blast zone.
Now, giving athletes a hard time for underperforming is nothing new. It certainly predates the recent expansion of regulated sports betting outside of Nevada, and many athletes, even students, expect to hear it when they play beneath their potential.
However, when gambling interests fuel that heckling, it becomes a form of harassment. That harassment is currently being thrown into stark relief as an increasing number of states, including North Carolina, have legalized collegiate sports betting.
What further exacerbates the toxic environment around gambling-based harassment is the growing number of gambling infractions involving collegiate athletes and athletics department staff.
A letter sent by the NCAA’s president to ESPN revealed the sports organization found 175 infractions of its sports betting policy since 2018. On top of that, there are 17 active ongoing investigations. Between this spate of infractions and the increase in gambling-related infractions, the collegiate sports betting environment needs help.
With at least six months before the earliest launch date of sports betting in North Carolina (Jan. 8, 2024), the North Carolina Lottery Commission, the regulator of the industry, needs to keep responsible gambling in North Carolina at the front of mind to protect its state’s student-athletes.
Online abuse rampant and most devastating to female athletes
In the past, athletes dealt with disgruntled fans with an air of aloofness and a lack of engagement. However, the anonymity of the internet has created a space for raging fans to become so exceptionally abusive toward athletes that it becomes nearly impossible to ignore.
It should be self-evident that harassing pro or college athletes is wrong. An athlete’s job is to perform to the best of their abilities. They should not be concerned with anyone’s bets or fantasy team.
However, a Crisp Research white paper on online abuse in sports revealed that after tracking 25 top athletes from five sports for six weeks, 72,995 items of harmful internet content were found. That’s an average of three harmful items per hour. These were high-profile athletes, such as LeBron James and Serena Williams, so the inflated number should be considered in this context. However, there is a more human level at which this data is appropriately daunting.
Online abuse can be found in all sports regardless of gender or star status. However, many of the athletes targeted by harassers on social media platforms with the most horrific abuse are women.
North Carolina’s fanbase under scrutiny
North Carolina has a large population of college sports fans, particularly in college basketball. No other state in the country has a richer basketball tradition and history than the Tar Heel State.
Although the Tobacco Road teams (University of North Carolina, Duke, NC State and Wake Forest) are what most fans associate with NC hoops, there are 18 Division I programs in the state. With that amount of passion and dedication comes the potential for harassment.
Last month, when Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 347, he legalized online sports betting across the state, including collegiate sports.
That means students 21 and older across the state will be able to bet on their favorite sports teams.
While the new law may appear as a boon to North Carolina sports betting fans, it could pose new risks for student-athletes. This is especially true if North Carolina student-athletes are not protected from gambling-related harassment.
Increased harassment of student-athletes
With little protection online, instigators and bad actors will always have a free pass to harass and abuse student-athletes.
That happened two years ago when Benjamin “Parlay” Patz, a 24-year-old sports bettor from California, was sentenced to 36 months probation for sending threatening messages to professional and collegiate athletes and their families via Twitter and Instagram.
As part of the probation, Patz’s sentence stated that he was barred from engaging in any activities that involved “gambling, wagering, or other betting activities, either online or in person.”
University of Dayton men’s basketball coach Anthony Grant referenced the issue in an emotional speech after a January game.
“When we have people that make it about themselves and attack kids because of their own agenda, it sickens me,” Grant said. “[Student-athletes] have families. They don’t deserve that. Mental health is real.”
Anyone who’s been on the receiving end of online abuse can easily feel his pain and anger. The feeling of destabilization and helplessness make healing very difficult, and the reality is that most student-athletes, even if they’ve not received harassment from gamblers, are probably familiar with and have possibly been victims of online harassment for other reasons.
Assuring students that they will be protected against further harassment and that their fears of such harassment are valid is the responsibility of the NCAA and the states that allow collegiate sports betting.
Taking a tough stance against harassers
Ohio is the one state that has decided to tackle the problem head-on.
A new provision in Ohio’s 2024-2025 operating budget, signed into law July 5, authorizes the Ohio Casino Control Commission to ban bettors from sports wagering in the state if they are found to have threatened athletes or others associated with a sporting event.
The law is the first of its kind in the US and could be a blueprint for states like North Carolina to follow.
Granted, the new ordinance may not completely deter harassers from betting since other means are available. Still, regulators ought to take a firm stance against harassers to ensure they are excluded from participating in the regulated market until they are rehabilitated.
Rehabilitation education could prove effective, particularly for less-egregious offenders. But if the violations continue, all rights to betting in the regulated market should be withheld. The North Carolina Problem Gambling Program (NCPGP) will receive an annual funding increase of $2 million. While the department is still navigating how to use the funding, rehabilitation education is the type of thing the NCPGP could tackle.
To further buttress the measure, it has been suggested that states should share information across jurisdictions and promote the reciprocity of bettor bans.
Will tackling the problem fall to NC sports betting regulators?
The North Carolina Lottery Commission should take the potential dangers of gambling-related harassment seriously.
While professional leagues have security measures to investigate threats, the NCAA still manages these new dangers at the level of education and awareness. A meaningful enforcement mechanism to prosecute harassers of student-athletes is lacking in most states, and regulators in states like North Carolina, where collegiate betting is legal, must cover that gap.
Therefore, to promote healthy and responsible gambling in North Carolina, a priority must be made to protect athletes. That responsibility will lie with the North Carolina Lottery Commission.