When Big Bets Become Death Threats: A Look Inside the World of Online Athlete Harassment

by | Nov 23, 2020 | Gambling & Gaming

Sports betting is growing and the leagues and teams love the “increased fan engagement” that it brings.

But here’s something the athletes of those leagues and teams aren’t going to love, increased fan engagement that comes in the form of death threats or other harassment as was the case after yesterday’s Colts-Packers game.


Do I know these threats are related to gambling activity? No.

Do I know these threats aren’t related to gambling activity? Also, no.

The reality is that the connection is going to be made and there are enough high-profile examples like this one and this one that breathes life into it being a possibility.

Not a New Concern

This is not a new concern for me. I didn’t wake up to the tweet and suddenly have a lightbulb turn on.

This has been a primary concern of mine first voiced when I took part in the 32nd National Council on Problem Gambling’s 2018 National Conference.

A year later, I attempted to raise this concern at the 33rd National Conference in a chat I had with a representative from the NCAA.

“Integrity isn’t your #1 issue or concern,” I said leaving a bit of space to allow it to settle and create intrigue. The tilting of his head and furrowing of his brow told me I had his attention. “Player protection is your #1 concern.”

He was fully engaged and we discussed how this was an even greater danger for college athletes due to their exposed nature vs their professional counterparts that had the comfort of gated communities and on-site security protocol.

We ended that chat with them requesting an email to follow-up and discuss the concern further. As of today, I’m still awaiting a response.

Not Exclusive for Poor Play

What makes the harassment even worse is that it isn’t reserved for athletes that make mistakes on the playing field (not that human error is the reason for harassment). No, they could just as easily find themselves at the receiving end of harassment for excelling in their craft. The last-second field goal or three-pointer that wins the game could have an adverse effect on an individual bettor’s spread or total points bet, prompting them to seek revenge.

Make or miss, someone is elated while someone else is furious. Either way, the athlete loses.

Not Exclusive for Large Bets

While the clickbait headline I purposely used highlights threats resulting from large wagers, it’s actually quite misleading and likely untrue (sorry, this is how the game is played in 2020).

The bettor’s placing significant wagers are likely the ones that handle the tough beats the best.

It’s more likely that harassment results from what would seemingly be less significant amounts, but of which the amount is quite significant to the bettor. A $500 loss for a broke college kid is just not the same as a $500 loss for a Wall St. banker. The amounts are relative and therefore make it even more complicated to track for potentially dangerous behavior.

Heck, it could even be for as little as $1, or $0.89 to be exact! (story here)

Though only $0.89 was actually lost (yes, I know they likely hedged the bet), it’s human nature for the bettor to feel like they were cheated out of so much more and therefore feel a need to avenge their “loss”.

I’ve Heard It Before

Yes, I already know what you are going to say: “Jamie, this is nothing new! People have been betting on sports forever. Legalizing sports betting isn’t going to add anything that wasn’t already there and if anything, it will add more oversight and protection.”

The examples of harassment cited above prove that threats being snuffed out and prosecuted are made easier in a regulated market. Ultimately, I do believe we get to a place where the net benefits of legalized sports betting provide more transparency, oversight, and protection for athletes than was happening in the past.

I just don’t think we are there yet.

How Do We Get There?

If we aren’t there yet, the question to ask is “How do we get there?”

Championing Safer Play

Responsible gambling campaigns are often viewed as an attempt to keep people from becoming addicted to gambling. While this is a goal, it shouldn’t be the only goal!

As more people begin to gamble, it becomes increasingly important to nudge these new bettors into doing so safely. More needs to be done to add depth to the discussion around setting limits and utilizing tools available to keep gambling in the “fun zone” and away from the “at-risk zone”.

This is merely a guess, but I believe we can reduce the level of player harassment by keeping the bets within the financial means of the bettor. Gambling should be fun and exciting, but it shouldn’t be so fun and exciting that the outcomes trigger death threats and I believe keeping the wagers from outpacing one’s ability to spend is one way we can keep things between the buoys.

Calling Out Bad Behavior

While journalists covering gambling are quick to write stories that cover the exciting side of sports betting such as large wagers or double-digit parlays that hit, there needs to be more coverage from within highlighting stories when fans cross the line.

As I mentioned earlier, while there might not be proof of gambling causing these behaviors, the growth of the industry will attract more attention and blame when these things occur.

It might not be “fair”, but it’s going to be a reality.

Stories that cover these inappropriate behaviors can utilize the strong and trusted voices of the industry to remind the audience that such behaviors will ultimately lead to increased regulation and an overall worse product.

Threats and harassment are bad for everyone involved. The sooner we drag the conversation into the light, the sooner we can get to achieving the reality that legalized sports betting is a net positive for society.

That’s the future I want for us and I hope we can pitch in to expedite the process.

Just like the Coronavirus, we’re all stuck in this together whether we like it or not. The sooner we acknowledge this truth and work together for improved outcomes, the better off we will be!

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