With fan-player interactions happening more often and in a far more personal manner than ever before, there are multiple aspects that need to be considered. While most interactions, whether in person or online, are positive, many others are not.
Unfortunately, it’s the bad ones that are once again at the forefront. How college and professional athletes are treated by the public — or more specifically, the betting public — has become a major concern.
Mental health issues among athletes not improving, NCAA study finds
There are currently eight online sportsbooks available to West Virginia sports betting patrons. Bettors in West Virginia can place bets on all college and professional sports.
After the Ohio Casino Control Commission considered banning individuals who harassed collegiate athletes about their performances in games from betting on sports, West Virginia is trying to take the issue a step further to include all athletes — collegiate and professional — as well as any coach or official affiliated with a game.
An NCAA study in May 2022 addressed the escalating problem.
“Student-athletes continue to report elevated levels of mental health concerns. The data indicated rates of mental exhaustion, anxiety, and depression have seen little change” in the last two years, according to the study.
Some believe the pressure of being an athlete, along with the outside criticism athletes often face, produces many of the mental health issues athletes in all sports struggle with.
A House bill introduced in the last session of the West Virginia Legislature aimed to help alleviate the mental health issues caused by outside sources, including losing bettors.
Authorities could only ban violators who bet in West Virginia
The bipartisan bill, HB 3310, did not pass in the last legislative session. West Virginia Delegate Shawn Fluharty told PlayWV he will submit it again next session.
The bill would allow the state Lottery Commission to ban people from betting on sports if they harass or show a harmful pattern of conduct toward any person involved in a sporting event.
While the ban would only be in West Virginia, national adoption could be right around the corner.
Of course, a national law would take a long time to enact. It would be laborious to track down violators on social media, as many of them use “burner accounts” under aliases. Also, there’s the debate about what crosses the line as harassment and what constitutes a “harmful pattern of conduct.”
Some interactions clearly cross that line. Others are not so cut and dried. Would any critical rant of a player or coach qualify as a violation?
Recent incidents are driving Ohio’s push to punish harassers
It’s not hard to find examples of this inexcusable behavior in the wild. Just take a look at Twitter after any close game or wild finish in sports. If a player or coach dares to tweet in the minutes or hours following a game, “fans” will respond with critiques of the player’s or coach’s performance.
Comments can be extremely harsh and personal. Many times, harassment on social media is totally unprovoked. Uptight fans send direct messages to a player’s social media accounts, or they comment on older posts.
These types of interactions have existed for a long time, well before social media came about. But Ohio’s efforts to curtail harassment can be tied to recent episodes linked to the legalization of gambling in the state.
Earlier this year, University of Dayton head coach Anthony Grant criticized gamblers during a postgame press conference. He reported hateful behavior toward his players following a loss.
“I have to say something, because it is just necessary at this point,” he said. “There’s some laws that have recently been enacted, that really, to me, could change the landscape of what college sports is all about. And when we have people that make it about themselves and attack kids because of their own agenda, it sickens me. They have families. They don’t deserve that. Mental health is real.”
In the 2021 NCAA tournament, No. 2 Ohio State was upset by No. 15 Oral Roberts in the opening round of play. Buckeyes forward E.J. Liddell played well, notching 23 points and 14 rebounds, but missed a free throw in the final minute. The miss would allow Oral Roberts to stay within two points and eventually win the game in overtime.
It wasn’t long before Ohio State’s own fanbase went rabid on Liddell. The then-sophomore began receiving death threats and online harassment. One person even threatened to physically attack him.
Ohio knew it had to address the problem.
Iowa player told to kill himself after missing a shot
Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond Ohio and West Virginia.
In March 2022, Illinois beat Iowa 74-72 in a tight men’s basketball game with postseason implications. After Iowa sophomore Kris Murray missed a potential game-winning shot, a fan told Murray to kill himself.
Earlier this year, Iowa player Patrick McCaffery, son of Iowa head coach Fran McCaffery, said he would be taking an indefinite leave from the team to address mental health issues.
Social media combined with gambling proliferation accelerates the issue
The explosion-like growth of social media, combined with the legalization of gambling and the NIL era in college sports, appears to have catalyzed these issues.
On the other hand, mental health being more talked about has helped to bring it out in the open.
Let’s face it, fans have been poor sports over losing since sports began. Contests are often so competitive that opponents and their fans will look for any reason to talk down and degrade players on the other side.
Fans mistreating players, coaches, and officials is nothing new. That’s been around well before gambling became legal in multiple US states. We can’t forget the notorious “Malice at the Palace” in 2004. Fans threw beer, then haymakers at NBA players before an all-out brawl broke out. Sports betting wasn’t legal then. And social media was little more than a budding idea.
Since sports betting has become legal in several states, the verbal onslaughts, whether in person or on social media, have only gotten more frequent and unavoidable for players, coaches, team staff, and officials.
The misadventures of ‘Parlay Patz’
One of the first instances of a fan going overboard on athletes was by Benjamin Tucker Patz, or “Parlay Patz” as he was known in the gambling world.
Patz, who earned notoriety in 2019 after winning more than $1 million betting on sports within a 50-day period, was taking his gambling losses out verbally (on social media) against the players on the other side of his wagers. Patz would go on an almost-daily rant of terrorizing college and professional athletes via direct messages. He even made graphic death threats against the players themselves, their families, and even their spouses and young children.
Patz was charged with “transmitting threats in interstate or foreign commerce,” according to the official federal document from the U.S. District Court in Florida:
“A review of direct messages stored on the targeted Instagram accounts revealed approximately 307 total other accounts that the targeted accounts had messaged, with nearly all the accounts receiving threatening and explicit messages. Almost all of those accounts appeared to belong to professional or college athletes, or to a family member or significant other of those athletes.”
Patz avoided jail time, but he was sentenced to 36 months of probation, which included him being barred from “engaging in any activities that involve gambling, wagering, or other betting activities, either online or in person.”