Sports Betting Threats Against Athletes, Coaches, and Refs on the Rise

“They got my telephone number and were sending me crazy messages about where I live and my kids and all that stuff […] The amount of times where I’m standing up there and we may have a 10-point lead and the spread is 11 and people are yelling at me to leave the guys in so that we can cover the spread, it’s ridiculous […] It brings added pressure. It brings a distraction to the game that can be difficult for players, coaches, referees, everybody that’s involved in it. And I think that we really have to be careful with how close we let it get to the game and the security of the people who are involved in it.”

J.B. Bickerstaff, Head Coach, Cleveland Cavaliers

The recent accounting from Bickerstaff sheds light on how harassment of athletic team/league staff has become a serious problem since the federal ban on sports betting was removed in 2018. Athletes, coaches, referees and anyone else who can be tied to the outcome of a given competition are being targeted by individuals who stand to lose or gain on a wager. This sort of concerning behavior can come from anyone with proverbial skin in the game, but it’s critical to note that aggression and violence (not just threats) are very real signs and symptoms of problem gambling. That fact on its own should be enough to sound an alarm. However as per Bickerstaff’s statements (among others) not enough is not being done to protect victims. Below is a breakdown of why sports betting threats must be afforded a task-force level response from stakeholders so that athletes, coaches, refs, and support staff are better and holistically protected.

Why the Rise in Sports Betting Related Harassment and Threats of Violence Against Teams and Leagues Must Be Taken Seriously (and what needs to be done)

A Threat Against Mental Health as Well

It may be easy for some to dismiss the sports betting related threats of violence as threats with no substance. One-off instances of physical attacks will invariably occur at some point, but will it really ever manifest to become commonplace? While time will tell, there is already one very real harm being felt by athletes, coaches, and refs – compromised mental health.

Harassment and threats of violence are logically damaging to the emotional and mental wellness of anyone in the general population along with organizational staff such as coaches and refs. But for athletes, intimidation and persecution from disgruntled sports bettors piles on to a long list of mental health issues that they already face. Can you imagine what the threat of harm to themselves or a loved one can do to someone who is already more vulnerable to anxiety, stress, depression, and more? Even more concerning, is that sports betting related threats are targeting teenage and young student athletes who have even greater vulnerabilities to mental health issues:

In the five years since legalized sports betting began spreading across the country, student-athletes have reported regularly receiving abusive messages from gamblers on social media, including death wishes and threats of violence. An FBI agent told ESPN that it considers threats to athletes on social media to be a ‘growing issue’.”

College Athlete Mental Health Crisis

That’s right, the threat is real enough to get the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) involved.

No amount of physical training, physiotherapy, nutritional supplementation, and performance-enhancement visualization techniques have prepared athletes (and coaches/refs) for what the legalization of sports betting has wrought upon their mental health.

What Can Be Done

Greater Investment in Organizational Mental Health Support Services

America can’t leave this growing societal problem to the feds and governing regulators. Leagues, organizations, and teams at an amateur, collegiate, and professional level with games/events that bookmakers (legal and otherwise) offer betting lines for are called upon to make an investment in mental health support services. These services must be readily available to their athletes, coaches, refs, and support staff. Direct and dedicated connections to specialized counsellors should become as commonplace as on-premises fitness centers, physical therapy services, and even ice-baths for that matter.

Investment in On-Premises Counselors for Disgruntled Sports Bettors?

Kindbridge has received informal reports from on-premises (arena, stadium, etc.) security that problematic behavior has increased by as much as 50% since the proliferation of legalized sports betting. While hiring more security is a logical response to such matters, investment in mental/behavioral health support services for attendees may be considered.

If given the opportunity to “cool-off” in a holding area while waiting for the authorities (as applicable) or before being allowed to leave, violators may come to terms with their actions and wish to speak to a professional (remotely) who is trained in counseling for problematic gambling behavior. Admittedly, this is a departure from the norm of simply tossing an aggravated fan out of the facility or into a paddy-wagon, but these are different times. More appropriate and holistic forms of intervention should be considered accordingly.

Kindbridge Behavioral Health is America’s provider of mental health support services for athletic leagues and organizations. We also specialize in the treatment of gambling disorder which makes us the preeminent authority on today’s new threat to athletes, coaches, refs, and related staff. Reach out via the contacts provided below to learn more about what we can do to help.

Concerned Athletes, Teams, Organizations, and Leagues

CALL +1 (877) 426-4258


Email [email protected]

Sports Betting Threats