It’s not often a college coach looks sullen following a conference victory, but University of Dayton men’s basketball coach Anthony Grant was visibly upset when he spoke after his team’s Jan. 17 win over Davidson.
Grant wasn’t upset about his team’s play, but rather because angry sports bettors had harassed his players on social media the game prior. The online harassment came just days after legal sports betting platforms went live in Ohio.
“There’s some laws that have recently been enacted that, to me, it could really change the landscape of what college sports is all about,” Grant said. “And when we have people that make it about themselves and attack kids because of their own agenda, it sickens me.”
Grant’s comments shed light on athlete harassment, something that has existed for decades but often goes overlooked. The Dayton incident sparked conversations about the topic, and with the 2023 college sports season beginning this month, conferences and outside stakeholders are working to protect athletes from frustrated bettors.
Athlete protections essential
Recent discussions around college sports wagering have focused on infractions by athletes and coaches. Former Alabama baseball coach Brad Bohannon drew national attention for allegedly sharing inside information with a sports bettor, and recent violations at Iowa and Iowa State have led to athletes jeopardizing their NCAA eligibility.
While there’s undoubtedly a focus by schools and athletes on avoiding NCAA violations, abusive bettors are also a topic of focus across college athletics. The NCAA is looking into the impact of social media harassment on athletes, and it may learn more about the topic after anonymous on-campus surveys expected to be conducted this year.
“The NCAA Mental Health Advisory Group is updating the current Best Practices document, which serves as the legislative basis for mental health care for all member schools,” Brian Hainline, chief medical officer at the NCAA, said in a statement in May. “Part of their updated focus is to address the potentially negative impact of social media harassment and abuse, which often springs from individuals who are involved with sport corruption or wagering. In addition, there will be updated guidance on management of gambling disorders.”
The issue of athlete harassment is particularly concerning at the college level, as juggling sports and high-level academics is a mental health challenge. Adding in angry sports bettors only adds to the list of potential stressors for young adults.
Given the seriousness of the topic, conferences, outside stakeholders, and regulators are taking action in 2023-24 to protect athletes.
“The support mechanisms are a big part of our focus right now,” Mid-American Conference Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher told Sports Handle.
Ohio lawmakers recently passed legislation designed to ban bettors from wagering in Ohio if they’ve shown abusive behavior toward players, coaches, or officials. The action followed several months after Grant’s comments about his Dayton players.
“I think that legislation is important,” said Matt Holt, CEO and founder of U.S. Integrity. “As someone who has directly seen the type of abuse that some of these athletes receive for doing nothing but playing hard to the final whistle or final bell, it’s gross. Threats of sexual assault, threats of murder, threats of murder on loved ones — all because someone lost a wager. Those are the ones that really hit home for us.”
Athlete Alert’s new role
Holt is particularly enthused about the launch this summer of Athlete Alert. An anonymous tip line created by U.S. Integrity in partnership with RealResponse, it gives athletes, coaches, trainers, officials, and others access by phone or text to anonymously report everything from competitive integrity concerns to verbal abuse from fans.
.@RealResponseHQFounder/CEO David Chadwick joins @steph_steeples to discuss:
✔️ Launch of Athlete Alert, powered by RealResponse
🤝 Partnership with U.S. Integrity
👉 Message to student-athletes
— Collegiate Sports Connect (@CS_Connect1) August 2, 2023
If the reports include credible threats of physical harm, they’ll be shared with relevant authorities. Other reports are documented and sent to the university involved and state regulators.
“Our hope is that we can start to get more legislation passed in more states and deter some of this activity,” Holt said.
Steinbrecher believes having outlets to report abusive behavior is especially important in 2023, when college athletes can benefit financially from building their online brand. Building an Instagram following, especially for the highest-profile athletes, may result in more valuable NIL deals, but it also might lead to more online abuse from upset bettors and fans.
“They’re accessible,” Steinbrecher said of athletes on social media. “And it’s a lot easier to direct comments at people than perhaps it was … back a decade or more. You just have to be sensitive to that, and we need to be responsive to that.”
Wagering not going away
The NCAA’s MAC conference, which has a partnership with Genius Sports, leans into sports betting positives. The conference worked with Genius Sports to create a MAC Pick’em game, hoping to boost fan engagement through a fun, wagering-like activity.
MAC games often occur on weeknights later in the season, giving the conference standalone games on ESPN networks. Those games are popular among bettors, providing a chance to wager on a televised weeknight event when there are fewer such options available.
— Barstool Gambling (@stoolgambling) November 12, 2020
Wagering interest from college sports fans means major media outlets devote coverage to betting angles.
ESPN previously held betting segments with Chris Fallica on its popular college football pregame show, College GameDay. While Fallica moved to FOX, “Stanford Steve” Coughlin is replacing him as the show’s featured betting analyst.
ESPN will launch ESPN BET in partnership with PENN Entertainment in November, signaling the network’s future focus on sports betting content. The MAC and ESPN have a TV deal spanning through at least 2026.
Steinbrecher doesn’t anticipate college sports and sports wagering leaving each other behind. He does, however, want the MAC to actively seek ways to maximize the student-athlete experience while also using betting as a way to entertain fans.
“Clearly sports wagering does bring eyeballs to events,” Steinbrecher said. “There’s pretty significant data on that, and so you understand that, you recognize it. What we need to do is figure out a way to coexist with each other.”