Chris Boucher is the sixth man for the Toronto Raptors, a 20-minute-per-game role player on a .500, play-in-bound team. As NBA players go, he’s about as middle-of-the-road as they come. Nobody, not even the most hardcore basketball fan, should care much about Boucher’s nightly box scores.
But some people do care. Some people care way too much.
And according to Boucher, they’re using social media to let him know how much they care and are exposing themselves in the process as sports bettors with no sense of decency.
On his podcast Hustle Play with Chris Boucher, the Raptors power forward recalled a message he received on social media recently from an upset gambler who, by any reasonable standard, crossed the line.
“Somebody said, ‘I chose the wrong slave today.’ Literally, sent me that message. I had to read it, I couldn’t believe it,” Boucher explained. “He said, ‘I chose the wrong slave,’ because I had only five points and he needed me to score 10. So, yeah, it’s at this point now.”
Boucher set up the disturbing anecdote by saying of social media and the interactions between fans and athletes, “The betting is not going to make it better now, with the parlays and all that.”
At first glance, it may seem the reference to parlays was unnecessary — a losing sports bet is a losing sports bet, right?
But if, say, a gambler placed a six-leg single-game parlay on a Raptors game and five legs hit, and it was Boucher going under on points that prevented a 25/1 payout from coming in, then the sort of people who will vent at athletes and dabble in racism by calling them “slaves” could well be more likely to melt down than if they’d lost on a standard -110 wager.
Boucher’s podcast conversation was mostly about the general criticism he and other athletes endure on social media. It wasn’t all about sports bettors. But he brought bettors into it as a prominent part of the picture. And it serves as one more piece of striking anecdotal evidence that the combination of sports gambling and social media can be toxic.
And this — not an overabundance of TV ads, not misuse of the term “risk-free” — is the ugly side of sports betting that has the potential to bring the whole industry down.
Boucher one of many
Most sports bettors know how to conduct themselves. They may get frustrated with a player when a wager loses. They may have an emotional reaction. But they know the athlete should not be held accountable for their own failure. They understand the risk they’re taking when they place bets and that the fault lies either with their own process for making the bet or with garden-variety bad luck and variance.
They get pissed. Maybe they mutter a curse word or two. Then they move on.
The sort of person who takes it out on the athlete is an outlier. But we’re hearing more and more about these obnoxious outliers.
Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal got into an altercation with a fan in March after the fan allegedly remarked to him, “You made me lose $1,300, you f***.”
Soon after legal sports betting went live in Ohio, University of Dayton basketball coach Anthony Grant spoke up about the online hate some of his players had received from bettors.
Dayton won yesterday, but head coach Anthony Grant’s postgame presser focused mostly on angry gamblers directing hate at his players, rather than his team’s win over Davidson. https://t.co/aZV1FuX5Pb
— Bennett Conlin (@BennettConlin) January 18, 2023
ESPN’s David Payne Purdum wrote last week about college athletes in the social media crosshairs, with NCAA basketball players telling him about receiving abuse if their teams win but don’t cover, having racial slurs directed at them, and other ugly incidents.
The most disturbing example publicized so far came a few years ago. A sports bettor named Benjamin Patz, in his early 20s at the time, sent death threats via Instagram direct message to Major League Baseball players in 2019 — and was charged with a crime and sentenced to 36 months of probation.
When the behavior crosses over into threats of actual physical harm, it can become a matter for authorities beyond the gambling world to address. But when it’s “only” nasty language, when there’s nothing explicitly criminal happening, it isn’t going to get the attention of law enforcement.
In these cases, it’s purely the gambling industry’s problem to police.
Sports betting’s house of cards
An angry bettor doesn’t have to threaten an act of violence to commit an act of violence. And if and when the latter happens, it has the potential to shut down sports betting.
As the fifth anniversary approaches of the U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning PASPA, the sports betting industry has its share of problems to contend with and politicians to placate. Some complaints are legitimate. Some are the predictable overreactions to a high-profile series of slanted articles published in The New York Times.
But the question of “How do we keep the cash flowing while doing our best to limit problem gambling?” is nothing compared to the question of “How do we justify this business’s existence if betting leads to a physical attack on an athlete?”
Not to mention, one athlete getting hurt will lead to further injuries as countless politicians and leaders of religious groups collide at full speed in their mad dash to the soap box.
Is objectionable behavior from fans a new phenomenon, something that didn’t exist before sports betting was legalized? Of course not. These sorts of things happen whether people have money on the games or not. They also happen when people have money on the games via unregulated operators. They’ve also been happening for years due to fantasy sports — where there’s at least a dotted line connecting the concept of player “ownership” with Boucher’s antagonist calling him a “slave.”
The existence of social media is at least as much to blame as the existence of sports betting. Twitter, Facebook, and beyond — if you pull on the wrong threads, you’ll see the very worst of humanity on display. The same social media platforms on which high-profile figures cry foul if things don’t go their way and then encourage others to attack their enemies are outlets for sports gamblers to exhibit traits of psychopaths.
Discussion now, action soon?
So what is to be done about this existential threat to the sports betting industry?
Situations such as this are precisely why the U.S. brought sports betting out of the shadows and put accountable companies and regulators in charge, creating a system to police the industry.
Well, the time has come to police bettors’ worst conduct.
The powers that be are trying. Purdum wrote in the above-linked ESPN.com article about a March 7 hour-long conference call — arranged by the organization U.S. Integrity and with invites going out to college sports officials, sportsbook execs, and state regulators — intended to discuss solutions to online harassment.
In that article, American Gaming Association Senior Vice President Casey Clark said, “Anybody who is harassing student-athletes based on betting, it’s a clear indication that they have a gambling problem and should be seeking help and not continue to actively participate in any legal gambling sites.”
True enough. Whether these individuals check all the “problem gambler” boxes or not, they are proving incapable of controlling their emotional response to sports gambling.
But the great majority won’t easily acknowledge that and self-exclude from sportsbooks. How can the industry force them to do what Clark says they “should” do?
The anonymity afforded by some social media sites puts the industry watchdogs at an instant disadvantage. Will Twitter share with state regulators the contact information associated with “BobbyBigBets8675309” after that account fires a racial epithet at an athlete? That seems like a longshot.
States that have legalized sports betting frequently go back and add and amend rules. New regulations surrounding communications between bettors and athletes should be the priority for state politicians — not limiting advertising, not tweaking the rules on whether to allow betting on in-state college teams for tournaments of a particular size.
It’s time to get legislation moving that clearly outlines consequences: If you’re betting in our state, and we find out you’re talking crap to an athlete, you get suspended from sports betting.
Some states, such as Ohio, are already talking openly about going down this path.
It’s far from a perfect solution. It will inevitably push some problematic gamblers back to bookies and offshore accounts, and the net will surely catch only a small percentage of the offenders.
But it would be a start. FanDuel, DraftKings, BetMGM, Caesars, and the rest of the companies profiting off of sports bettors need to step up. They need to recognize that banning bettors who behave like this is a way for the sportsbooks to protect themselves — at least to some small degree — from the most dangerous threat to their existence.