A recent incident between a fan and Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal underscores a growing concern for professional sports. What happens when a disappointed sports bettor expresses displeasure at losing a wager?
At the end of March, the Orlando Magic defeated the Washington Wizards in Orlando. Florida sports betting isn’t legal just yet. But a fan insulted Beal from the stands while the Wizards exited the court, claiming the loss cost him $1,300.
Then, Beal allegedly approached the fan and swatted his hat off his head. Local authorities are investigating the incident.
Beal’s reaction isn’t the most troubling aspect of the athlete vs. bettor dynamic. There is a potential risk for players to come under attack. As sports betting increases in popularity, there is a correlated risk with losing bettors confronting and threatening players.
Earlier this year, the University of Dayton men’s basketball coach Anthony Grant lamented harsh heckling fans directed at his team.
“There’s some laws that have recently been enacted, that really to me—it could really change the landscape of what college sports is all about,” Grant said after a one-point loss to VCU on Jan. 13. “When we have people that make it about themselves and attack kids because of their own agenda, it sickens me.”
In 2021, a self-described professional gambler threatened violence against members of the New England Patriots and their families. A court convicted him on multiple felony charges.
What can be done to protect athletes from angry sports bettors?
Legalized sports betting is on the rise in the United States. Following a landmark 2018 Supreme Court decision that allowed legalization on a state-by-state basis, 37 states and Washington, DC passed legislation permitting it. As more states follow suit, more sports fans will become customers of sportsbooks.
Professional leagues and athletic organizations should be mindful of safeguarding athletes at sporting events, putting security in place to ensure fans cannot infringe on and threaten participants.
Most leagues train athletes to deal with fan interactions and develop protocols to guide teams and players through sticky situations. Those efforts should include information on how to handle harassment from sports bettors.
In addition, social media platforms should shield athletes from threats and unwarranted criticisms. The NBA, MLB, NFL, and NHL should employ social media listeners as part of their security apparatus to monitor potential trouble spots.
There is too much at stake not to take this issue seriously. An angry sports fan could threaten or harm an athlete or his family.
Furthermore, angry sports bettors shouldn’t affect game integrity. Or even just the appearance of it.
Increased bettor-athlete altercations can cast doubt about whether the athlete was intimidated into shaving points. That spells trouble for both the leagues and sportsbooks. With social media, fans can get their rants in front of athletes’ eyes, no matter how unhinged.
In 2021, Green Bay Packers receiver Marquez Valdes-Scantling revealed that several fans had hounded him on his social media accounts after a poor performance.
“When you get fans hounding you, saying, ‘You lost me the game because you didn’t get this [number] of points,’ or ‘I lost out on money because of you,’ that’s when it becomes really annoying,” Valdes-Scantling told Sports Illustrated. “It’s not about the sport anymore. It’s about the finances you’re making off me.”
Sportsbook solutions: Code of conduct for sports bettors
Sports betting operators should participate in helping to create a process for making athletes safe from the few crazed fans who feel they need to complain about losing bets.
Currently, retail and mobile sportsbooks have a mechanism that allows them to exclude a bettor for violating rules and betting guidelines. How difficult would it be for sportsbooks to establish a code of conduct?
Every bettor must accept those terms before establishing an account with the company. If a bettor violated that agreement, such as threatening a player or team official, the sports betting operator could ban that consumer from placing bets.
Legislators and regulators could also mandate this from their licensees. They can require sportsbooks to develop a system that bans a bettor who threatens an athlete.
Players rep: Athletes are the backbone of the betting industry
In 2023, as Massachusetts approached the launch of its sports betting industry, regulators heard testimony from advocates for athletes seeking protection.
“I think there is a particular reason why you ought to give serious consideration to what we’re asking for. And that is because this industry, the sports betting industry, is built on the backs of the players,” said Steve Fehr, counsel to the National Hockey League Players Association. “Quite literally the revenue is generated entirely by the performance of the players, and yet, we are not here today with our hand out asking for money. All we are asking for today in this process is that you consider some things that will make things safer, and make sports betting better and more fair.”
A system that helps protect athletes and disciplines unruly fans won’t be simple. But sportsbooks should carefully debate how to implement a Sports Bettors Code of Conduct. It’s especially important as the Beal incident and other controversies like it becomes more common.