The University of New Mexico’s men’s basketball team defeated Wyoming 76-75 on Dec. 31, improving to a perfect 14-0 on the season. The Lobos were thrilled with their victory, but Assistant Athletic Director of Communications Frank Mercogliano noticed an unusual sentiment in a few post-game tweets directed at the official team Twitter account.
A couple of users called out senior forward Josiah Allick for missing two late free throws, despite finishing with 15 points and 15 rebounds. Mercogliano quickly figured out the angry posters were frustrated gamblers, as the Lobos won but didn’t cover as a 1.5-point favorite.
— Danny (@mccartin_dan21) December 31, 2022
“There were a few folks on our official account calling the kid a bum and a waste, and [he] should go to Division II,” Mercogliano said. “You sort of laugh at it. And then the administrator in me looks at it and goes delete, delete, delete.”
A disturbing trend
New Mexico isn’t the only college basketball team to recently experience this issue. Hofstra’s associate director for athletic communications, Stephen Gorchov, recently tweeted that he’s used to seeing angry social media posts after Hofstra’s men’s basketball team fails to cover a spread.
“You’ve never really managed the social media accounts of a sports team until you’ve been attacked by gamblers,” Gorchov posted on Jan. 16, following a Hofstra loss. “Today was one of the worst in my time with men’s basketball — and we’ve all had our fair share. Horrible people.”
James Madison University Director of Communications Jason Krech tweeted a similar thought in mid-January. He believes some users created burner accounts just to trash JMU players.
Brett Hein, the sports editor of the Standard-Examiner, covers Weber State University’s athletic programs. Hein says he’s noticed an uptick in angry gamblers tweeting at official team accounts over the last few seasons. He says it’s easy to tell when it’s a gambler tweeting, as their language is usually more broad. They might call a team or player “trash” for one specific game rather than having a gripe about the team’s long-term outlook like an actual fan might.
“They’re clearly following games because of bets, not really to enjoy the sport,” Hein told Sports Handle.
Dayton men’s basketball head coach Anthony Grant even used a recent postgame press conference to address the issue.
“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, shortly after Ohio’s legal sports betting launch on Jan. 1. “And when we have people that make it about themselves and attack kids because of their own agenda, it sickens me.”
The Flyers’ team Twitter account had numerous angry mentions from bettors after the Flyers blew a double-digit lead in a January home loss to Virginia Commonwealth University. Some players were even tagged in a few of the hateful tweets after the defeat.
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
Collegiate athletes aren’t the only ones dealing with online hate from gamblers. Professional athletes are also concerned about receiving threats from bettors.
Mass Live reported that The Players’ Association, a collective representing several professional sports leagues including the NFL, NBA, and MLB, asked the Massachusetts Gaming Commission to address threats from bettors in its regulations. Players want possible protection from threats brought on by gamblers.
The MGC hopes to address those concerns in the near future, as retail sports betting went live in the state at the end of January. A mobile sports betting launch is expected in March.
Mental health concerns
Grant was emotional after seeing the online language that gamblers directed at his players. He became choked up during his discussion of the topic.
“Mental health is real,” Grant said.
College athletes carry significant burdens. Between practices, games, academics, and relationships, college athletes typically create jam-packed schedules. That can lead to burnout, frustration, and sadness.
Mike Buzzelli, the associate director of the Problem Gambling Network of Ohio, ran cross country at Slippery Rock University while attending the school from 2006-10. He knows firsthand the challenges of competing in a sport while juggling class work and social obligations.
“It almost becomes a full-time job, right?” Buzzelli said.
An NCAA survey of student-athletes conducted in 2021 found that “rates of reported mental health concerns experienced within the last month were 1.5-2 times higher than have been historically reported by NCAA student-athletes prior to 2020.”
The COVID-19 pandemic impacted physical and mental health, and those impacts were notable for college athletes. Sports were temporarily halted, and many classes went virtual. It was a drastic change for athletes so used to mapped-out routines.
Improved COVID-19 prevention and treatment measures helped mitigate the risk of the virus nationwide, but it didn’t erase the mental health toll caused by the pandemic. Three Division I female student-athletes died by suicide in March and April last year. Their deaths sparked increased dialogue about student-athlete mental health. Athletes across the country spoke up about the mental challenges of being a student-athlete and the stigma of speaking up about their struggles.
The NCAA recently added a “mental health” element to its constitution, as member institutions are now required to “facilitate an environment which ensures access to appropriate resources and open engagement with respect to physical and mental health.”
Mental health matters! 🧠💚
Student-athlete leaders in all three divisions collaborate on a joint statement about mental health in college athletics. pic.twitter.com/lbBeQEAe6c
— NCAA (@NCAA) January 27, 2023
Improvements surrounding mental health resources don’t eliminate mental health challenges, however, especially those related to online abuse from fans. While gambling isn’t solely to blame for athlete mental health concerns, it doesn’t benefit an athlete’s mental health for bettors to flood their social media mentions with angry comments.
Some players receive direct messages that can be even more alarming, as those comments are hidden from public view.
“What can occur when we’re looking at gambling and mental health, so much of it is looking at the gambler,” Buzzelli said. “We’re looking at problematic gambling. We’re looking at addiction, and that’s great [that attention is being paid to that]. That’s the world in which I live. But we do need to think about the people who are being gambled upon.”
No easy solutions
Given the recent concerns and increased discussions around student-athlete mental health, regulatory bodies and teams are pondering ways to reduce online hate directed at players.
Ohio Casino Control Commission Executive Director Matt Schuler brought up the Dayton men’s basketball incident in a recent OCCC meeting. Schuler suggested the OCCC could ban wagering in Ohio by those bettors who spread hateful messages to college athletes online. That rule could serve as motivation for angry bettors to keep their comments to themselves.
Typically, however, angry gamblers operate accounts that don’t include identifying information. Tracking down who tweets a hateful comment at an athlete wouldn’t be easy. It’s also not clear if the social media users verbally attacking Dayton players even lived in Ohio, so the OCCC banning them from wagering in Ohio wouldn’t matter much. Schuler’s proposed solution is an interesting idea, but not necessarily a fix.
So what, if anything, can be done to prevent social media harassment of college athletes?
Buzzelli would like to see more mental health messaging from sportsbook operators to users. Often, operators utilize messaging to check in on a user when they’re wagering for longer than usual or with more money than usual, but what if operators sent messages that included a mental-health check after a string of lost bets?
“How about while I’m gambling my app says, ‘Hey Mike, still having fun?’ or ‘Mike, were you starting to get a little stressed from that last bet?’” Buzzelli said. “That might then alleviate some of the anger that starts to build up inside of a gambler while they are placing those bets.”
Betting on the Barstool Sportsbook app is meant to be fun. Listen to @BarstoolBigCat. If betting on the @bssportsbook app stops being fun be sure to take a break. Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER for help. pic.twitter.com/yTp2AVknSm
— Barstool Sportsbook Responsible Gambling (@BarstoolRG) February 2, 2023
Sports betting is meant to be a recreational activity, and Buzzelli notes it doesn’t always feel that way. Some users take pride in winning bets, as correctly predicting an outcome brings them joy or bragging rights. When wagers lose, bettors might start to feel self-conscious and irritated. Buzzelli believes a few check-in messages from operators could serve as a positive reminder for bettors that the activity is meant to be enjoyable, not stress-inducing.
Eliminating all online hate is nearly impossible, unfortunately, and some of the responsibility of dealing with online anger lies within each athletic department. Programs often educate athletes about the pitfalls of social media, especially early in their college careers.
“I think most schools have very good compliance offices that kind of talk [players] through this a little bit, and coaches do a good job,” said the University of New Mexico’s Mercogliano.
Mercogliano deletes or hides any replies that curse at players, although angry messages from fans directed at the team account are often allowed. There’s a difference between fans voicing frustration after their favorite team loses and gamblers targeting their hate toward individual performers.
“If a fan wants to yap at the team, that’s their right, but if you’re yapping at a specific kid, especially when he was really good, I’ll take a look at their feed,” Mercogliano said. “If they’re not a fan, they’re just a gambler, I’ll just delete it. Sometimes I block them.”
There’s value for college athletes in using social media accounts — especially in the NIL era when personal branding can carry financial reward for high-profile players — but there are also dangers when using online platforms like Twitter and Instagram.
Currently, the task of balancing the desire to grow a social media following and dealing with online abuse falls partially on the college students. Athletes can do everything from blocking rude followers to closing direct messages to making their social accounts private, but nothing completely shields an athlete from online hate.
Mercogliano hopes the issue improves in part due to angry gamblers simply taking ownership of their losing bets rather than blaming college athletes.
“If you’re gambling on the outcome of a sporting event involving guys that were riding yellow school buses not that long ago, that’s on you,” Mercogliano said.