Social media and gambling have made death threats routine for college athletes

Throughout this year’s men’s and women’s NCAA Tournaments, athletes have reported receiving death threats on social media. After LSU’s loss to Iowa last week, an emotional Angel Reese said she has been receiving such threats since winning the national title in 2023. Days later, Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall deleted her social media altogether due to threats hurled her way after she drew a game-clinching foul against UConn in the Final Four.

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On the men’s side, Purdue’s Carson Barrett hit a three-pointer at the end of his team’s victory over Grambling State. That bucket appeared to have affected the betting outcome for people who had gambled on Purdue’s margin of victory. Barrett’s reward? A direct message on Instagram that told him to “slit you throat” for “taking that three”. The sender ended the message by telling Carter “I hope you kill yourself.”

Is this the new norm? Should college athletes now expect this type of abuse and threats from fans? After Reese revealed the death threats she had received, many fans questioned the validity of her claims. But there is evidence that it happens a lot more than people think.

“Recent data indicates that approximately one in three high-profile athletes receive abusive messages from someone with a betting interest,” the NCAA president, Charlie Baker, wrote in a March letter to campus leaders. “Data also indicates 90% of that harassment is generated online or through social media, while the other 10% is occurring in person, with some generated from other students on campus.”

I played for Syracuse University from 1996 through 2000 and it was a whole different world. Sure, fans were often unhappy after a tough loss, and my teammates shared stories of angry fans heckling them at the mall or parties. And Black players, from Reese to members of Michigan’s Fab Five in the early 1990s have always received a disproportionate share of abuse from mainstream America, which sees them as too proud, too confident and too “uppity”. But the difference is, with the rise of social media, the abuse, hatred and threats have been magnified a thousand times since our college days.

“We received so much backlash and it really was unexpected,” Juwan Howard, one of the Fab Five, told me for my book Athletes And Activism. “And we didn’t have social media back then. If we had social media at that time? Man, it would’ve been crazy. It’s better we didn’t have Twitter back then … there were all types of letters that were delivered to the University and to Coach [Steve] Fisher. A lot of them had a very racist and hateful tone to them. Many with the N-word … it was like we were back in the 60s and trying to integrate an all-white school.”

Social media has given the fans access to athletes; too much access. In the past, overzealous fans would have to write a letter and mail it to a university to let out their anger: the effort it took may even have given them time to calm down and question whether what they were doing was wise. But now they can unleash their anger, frustration, disappointment, hatred, racism, sexism and any other bile feel directly to athletes with a simple tap of a button on their cell phone in seconds.

Add in sports gambling – which is now legal in most US states – to the mix and the abuse only gets worse as bettors take their frustration out on players when they lose money.

“These harassing behaviors seem to have gone up because of the legalization and normalization,” Amanda Blackford, director of operations and responsible gambling at the Ohio Casino Control Commission, told the Guardian this year.

It’s easy to forget that the targets of this abuse are often still in their teens, and are not paid for their labor – or for the threats they must cope with. “What we’re going through [in terms of threats and abuse], it’s not one person, it’s the whole college athlete base,” Jordan Bohannon, then a senior at Iowa, said in 2022.

Not that professional athletes are immune. Deion Sanders, one of the greatest NFL players of all time and now head coach at the University of Colorado, revealed that he has received death threats and now travels with a security team. After a loss at the US Open in 2021, American tennis player Shelby Rogers said: “I’m going to have 9m death threats and whatnot. At this point in my career, I’d say I’m used to it.”

This cannot be accepted as the norm. The Communications Act of 2003 is supposed to make it an offense to send a message that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”. but it doesn’t seem like this is being enforced or adhered to. So now the question is, what are teams, colleges, universities and the NCAA doing to keep their student-athletes safe?

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Many are calling for harsher punishments for those who are found guilty of death threats, online abuse and harassment of athletes, including a ban from attending NCAA-sanctioned events involving the school and/or athletes involved. But will that solve the problem of people watching from homes who jump on to social media to hurl their vile abuse?

The NCAA is fully aware of the issue: it was a topic of discussion at the organization’s annual meeting, where Baker linked sports gambling directly to the rise in abuse. He has urged states where gambling is legal to ban proposition bets on college athletes, hoping that this will cut down on abuse from angry bettors. The NCAA also announced that they are partnering with a data science company to identify threats.

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

In addition, the NCAA is launching a new campaign to battle some of the issues that come along with sports betting, including abuse and death threats. The organization will no longer tell fans and students to “just say no” to gambling but will “prioritize education and the reduction of harm that can be inflicted on a young person from betting”.

It’s a good start, but is it enough?

The bottom line is that no college athlete, or any athlete for that matter, should be subjected to death threats. There is nothing they can do on the court that warrants a threat to their life. If sports betting is here to stay and the NCAA has identified that as the cause of this increase in threats, then the NCAA and universities have to do more to keep their “student-athletes” safe from this type of danger. Every threat should be taken seriously. Campaigns, educational techniques, conferences and slogans are cool, but death threats are not something that can become normalized.

The NCAA has to send a strong message, that threats of any kind to players will not be tolerated and violators will be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, and then follow that declaration through with action. The NCAA, universities and college teams must ensure their players’ safety and protection. If they don’t, they are failing all student-athletes.


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