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College players face risks from disgruntled gamblers, experts say

FILE - In this March 18, 2015, file photo, a basketball with the NCAA logo goes in on a shot by Northeastern during practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
FILE - In this March 18, 2015, file photo, a basketball with the NCAA logo goes in on a shot by Northeastern during practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)
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Legal sports betting has exploded in a few short years, and a group at Miami University in Ohio is working to reduce the negative consequences.

More than 30 states have legalized sports betting in less than five years since a Supreme Court ruling cleared the way.

Sports gambling is already a huge business. A quarter of American adults plan to bet on the men’s college basketball tournament that starts this week, according to the American Gaming Association.

The AGA estimates tournament betting will total $15.5 billion this year.

And some analysts expect the sports-betting market in the U.S. to reach $167 billion by the end of the decade.

“As the scope expands, then the potential for adverse outcomes (expands),” said Jason W. Osborne, who’s with the Institute for Responsible Gaming, Lotteries, and Sport at Miami University.

Osborne said they’re not against gambling. But he said there’s a real need for research, education and resources to be put into responsible gaming so "we're not causing irreparable harm" as this activity grows.

Osborne is a statistician, but mental health experts, government officials and others are also part of the interdisciplinary approach at the Miami institute.

“It's a big Wild West at this point,” he said of the rapid growth in sports gambling.

States are “jumping on this bandwagon,” because it opens a pipeline to billions in tax revenue.

And bettors have easier access and broader acceptance, with leagues in partnership with sportsbooks that can often be accessed anywhere via a phone app.

People want to make money off of this, and they don't always want to do it in a legitimate way in the spirit of gaming and fun,” Osborne said.

His group is concerned with the dangers of gambling addiction and technological safeguards for underage people.

But one danger that’s perhaps less discussed is the increased risks to athletes from disgruntled gamblers.

Osborne noted a couple of recent examples, including gambling-related threats directed toward basketball players at the University of Dayton.

A few years ago, a man who "gambled prolifically" was sentenced to prison for sending death threats to dozens of professional and college athletes.

Osborne said both professional and collegiate athletes face heightened risk in a world with more legal sports betting and more access via social media, where “people seem to be more willing to reach out with negative feedback, with vitriolic speech, or with threatening words or actions.”

Collegiate athletes may not be as savvy or insulated as pro athletes, he said.

And states, the gambling industry, athletic conferences, schools and the athletes themselves all have a responsibility to protect the players or coaches from these dangers, Osborne said.

Schools are still wrestling with the fallout of new rules that allow athletes to make money off their "name, image and likeness."

The impacts of expanded sports gambling might be of lower concern for schools and other parties, but Osborne said it shouldn’t be ignored.

Osborne and his colleagues at the Institute for Responsible Gaming, Lottery, and Sport offered some advice for regulators and schools:

  • Develop coordination efforts so that someone who gets in trouble for gambling-related offenses can’t just drive to the neighboring state and repeat the bad behavior
  • Dedicate some of the revenue from gambling to developing educational materials and support for athletes and those around them
  • Create anonymous tip lines to report threats, intimidation or attempts to bribe or influence the players. And fund an independent entity to respond to these reports
  • Protect athlete privacy. For instance, schools might decline to publish contact information for student-athletes and coaches in public directories
  • Train athletes and those around them on privacy management. Schools might advise athletes to not post on public social media outlets, especially if the post gives away their physical location
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"The upside is that there are ways to monitor a lot of these things in real-time or in virtually real-time and to do threat assessments and threat interceptions," Osborne said.