NCAA president: Social media harassment of college athletes a growing problem because of sports gambling

At the annual NCAA Convention in Phoenix, panel discussions focus on the rising dangers of sports gambling and unveil a plan to protect athletes and bettors from potential abuse and addiction. (Photo by Jesse Brawders/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX – Whether it be on the courts or on the fields, the lines are abundantly clear in sports. But in the evolving relationship between college athletics and sports betting, the NCAA is addressing the cost of the fuzzy lines that accompany that connection.

The growing abuse athletes, coaches and officials face on social media related to betting has put the NCAA on high alert, an issue addressed this week during the organization’s convention in Phoenix. The NCAA is partnering with a data science company to identify threats.

“Basically tracks ugly, nasty stuff that’s being directed at people … and it can shut it down or basically block it,” NCAA President Charlie Baker said. “And in some cases even track where it came from.”

Over the last five years, sports betting has grown into one of the largest revenue-generating mediums in the country. In 2022, the gross gaming revenue in the United States was $60.42 billion, a 13.9% increase from 2021, according to the American Gambling Association. Sports betting GGR also had a massive increase, with a whopping 72.7% increase to $7.5 billion.

In Arizona alone, there are 17 sports betting operators that are accessible from a mobile device. Bet Arizona reported that this led to nearly $6 billion in betting handled in 2022 and $285 million in revenue.

In a study from the ethical data science company Signify Group, it was reported that in 2022, one out of four players in Grand Slam tennis tournaments received targeted verbal abuse from social media. The most common abuse was taunts of match-fixing at 30%, with violent and racist remarks each in 9% of posts.

College athletes are facing similar attacks, and a threat made to a team in a championship last year was so concerning that it led to police protection, Baker said.

Even though bettors cannot place bets on a player’s individual performance in college sports, athletes are still subject to hate and abuse online after a game. This has been heightened over the last few years, as the new generation of bettors and college athletes have grown up around social media and are more likely to post and check their desired platforms.

It’s an issue that is not only for the social media companies to handle, but also the NCAA and potentially state and national governments.

Jonathan Hirshler, co-founder and CEO of Signify Group, stressed that the public should not wait for social media companies to up their game on tackling hate. He later added that “we need to have a reality check” about accountability and being more proactive about calling out and stopping abuse.

The U.K., which is where Hirschler is based, does not have an existing law specifically for online abuse and harassment, but many of its previous acts include online communication. The most recent is the Communications Act of 2003, which makes it an offense to send a message that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

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Hirshler floated the idea of harsher punishments for those who are found guilty of online abuse and harassment of athletes, including a ban from attending NCAA-sanctioned events involving the school and/or athlete(s) involved.

He also said that there is not enough support from universities for athletes who are receiving this type of online abuse.

The NCAA is close to launching its new plan to help combat this issue, while also bringing more education and awareness to sports betting with their new program.

Partnering with Kindbridge and the Signify Group, the NCAA is preparing the launch of its new campaign to battle sports betting with its new “Draw the Line” initiative.

The campaign’s targeted launch is Selection Sunday for Men’s March Madness – the second-most bet on sporting events in the world, only behind the Super Bowl. This replaces the “Don’t Bet on It” campaign and will line up with Problem Gambling Awareness Month.

Instead of just attempting to tell fans, students and staff to say “no” to gambling, the new campaign will prioritize education and the reduction of harm that can be inflicted on a young person from betting.

“Our goal is not to prevent gambling,” said Timothy W. Fong, a professor of psychiatry at UCLA and the co-director of the school’s gambling studies program. “Our goal is to reduce, minimize and lessen harms from gambling.”

Fong noted during the harm prevention session that society has gambled since the dawn of time, just by living. The main concept is nothing new, but the way that sports betting has evolved with the aid of social media is a culmination of factors that experts are continuously learning.

Arguably the most impactful new factor for this generation is the growing awareness of mental health, including the developing knowledge of how gambling can expose — and sometimes create – mental illnesses.

Mental health issues can be an assistant to growing a gambling addiction, Fong said. Over the past few years, it has been discovered that in some cases gamblers can develop new mental health problems during the addiction process.

The symptoms of gambling addiction may include suicidal ideation, suicide attempts, substance use disorder, lack of eating and poor self-care. This culminates in what Fong called “lethal emotional pain.”

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Fong noted that often when patients reach out to him and his team for treatment, it is too late and a lot of personal damage has already occurred.

“The problem comes in, by the time they come to see someone like myself, the damage is really severe. We’re talking (an) average (of) 50, 80, 100,000 dollars, years of distress, years of neglect, not being able to graduate,” Fong said. “The key is discussing this earlier for prevention.”

This is where Teresa Fiore, the vice president of partnerships for EPIC Global Solutions, steps in. In her current position, Fiore partners with Kindbridge Behavioral Health as a new resource for athletes to receive care from staff who have gone through a similar path.

Kindbridge is an online service for all students to seek as a resource from a former bettor and athlete who can assist people battling a gambling addiction.

One of the new issues for groups like Kindbridge is that young people are being introduced to sports gambling at a younger age. This is from a mix of early marketing on popular apps, as well as some colleges and student groups partnering with sportsbooks and giving out free merchandise to entice them before they become of legal age.

Despite the age limit – which is 18 or 21 depending on the state – more students have gambled before they even enter college, and even more experiment with wagers before they become old enough to legally gamble in states that allow sports betting.

As sports betting continues to grow with a new generation of potential bettors, social media has opened a new avenue of problems for not only athletes but also for bettors who have an interest in betting on collegiate sports.

One of the most discussed topics during Wednesday’s session was how to combat the abuse that players and coaches receive on social media and sports betting websites.

As sports betting continues to grow in popularity in the United States, the NCAA and its partners look to build upon their ambitions to create a more aware and educated setting for their athletes.

When the 2024 Men’s Basketball Final Four arrives in Phoenix in April, the NCAA’s new campaign is a new step towards a safer playing ground for the athletes on the court and in the sportsbooks.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Jesse Brawders expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in educational studies. Brawders is a freelance esports commentator.