It won’t take but a minute of your time on an average day. Log on to a social media platform. Have a quick gander at some user comments regarding virtually any issue — irrespective of importance – being discussed.
You’ll come to a quick realization that:
- Listening to/considering a differing perspective is apparently some quaint old-fashioned notion that’s foreign to most.
- That old saying that opinions are like assholes? The connection between the two has never been stronger.
And most athletes with an online presence can provide expert testimony regarding the second point.
Athletes’ need for thick skin bigger than ever
The fact their performances play an integral part in the outcome of events that often ruin or make a fan’s entire day — hell, their entire week or entire month in some cases — has always made players an inviting target for either adulation or venom.
But they had it relatively easy in the rustic, pre-Internet age. Back then, they were effectively shielded from everyone but those in the stadium or arena in the aftermath of a stinging loss if they so chose.
That’s all long out the window, of course. And with the proliferation of real money-based fantasy sports contests over the last 25 years in particular – initially in the season-long realm, and in the DFS space within the last decade – it’s not just the team’s die-hard fans the athlete has to worry about hearing from online.
It’s actually those who have any type of financial skin the game most likely to get a bit testy. Over the years, that sample has naturally included those wagering with a bookie or offshore sportsbook.
That sports betting population is now set to progressively increase as more states legalize wagering. Accordingly, players associations are starting to do a bit of hand-wringing with respect to the wellbeing of their athletes in a legalized sports betting landscape.
NFLPA speaks up for athletes’ concerns about legalized sports betting
David Purdum of ESPN.com recently covered that development in depth. The NFLPA, along with the unions representing MLB, NBA and NHL players, were in attendance at the National Council of Legislators from Gaming States’ summer meeting last week. The NFLPA particularly made the case that athletes are concerned about what legalized sports betting could mean for both their public and private personas.
They also emphasized their role in “protecting” players in a legalized sports betting environment (although no one’s quite crystallized what exactly that entails or encompasses yet). And, they reemphasized that …ahem… like certain other entities that may or may not go by similar acronyms, the players unions aren’t looking for a cash payout from casinos, states, or anyone else.
The unions have a few reasonable points…
Even though it’s somewhat akin to blasphemy these days, I can see some validity in each of what could be dueling perspectives – that of the unions/athletes, and that of those who might be inclined to dismiss their concerns as overreaction.
First, to the athletes’ and their representatives’ point of view:
- Fans/fantasy players/bettors can and do insert themselves directly into an athletes’ digital periphery quite easily these days.
- That same segment also often has an unlimited supply of “keyboard courage”. They often won’t and don’t hold back…from the safety of their laptop or mobile device, of course.
- Irrationality, lack of civility and a few other undesirable behaviors toward athletes on social media are often proportional to the amount of cash someone has riding on an athletic contest.
- Consequently, NFLPA president Eric Winston’s comment in Purdum’s story that the “dehumanization of athletes” has long been on digital display each week after NFL games rings true.
- Athletes’ personal lives and whereabouts are more transparent in real time than ever before. Naturally, that’s in large part due to the players themselves oversharing at times. But the overriding point is, never has the general public had more resources and opportunity at their disposal to locate where an athlete might be on any given day/night.
All of those factors could, in conjunction with a virtually national legalized sports betting landscape (which won’t be a reality on that scale for several years at minimum), potentially lead to an uptick in postgame vitriol at best, and to a dangerous situation at worst.
Players unions certainly can’t be blamed for attempting to carry out one of their most fundamental functions – speaking up for the best interest of their clients. Given how the breakdown of civil discourse and behavior in many areas of society is increasingly the norm, there’s enough “there” there for player representatives to ensure athletes aren’t forgotten in a conversation that’s often been heavily weighted toward preserving game integrity.
On the other hand…
But from where the skeptic sits, there’s this:
- Sports betting on a massive scale has already been going on for decades.
- Sports betting is legal in the European Union and is a multi-billion dollar enterprise without widespread reports of athletes facing harassment from those on the wrong end of a wager.
- Not a great deal should change in terms of the public chastising athletes online; those who are already prone to do it will continue to. There won’t necessarily be some gargantuan cascade of new bettors that previously had never been on the losing side of a wager invading players’ Twitter and Instagram accounts overnight.
- In terms of physical/personal safety for athletes, these players typically have more than enough money, resources and common sense to not divulge where they’re going to be/are, to attain an enhanced degree of privacy when they do go out, and to hit the streets with security at their side if they actually feel at risk.
Given how long the leagues and the NCAA railed against legalized sports betting, there was bound to be a rocky acclimation period/fair share of misplaced concerns if it ever came to fruition. That’s precisely what’s transpired in certain circles in the last two months-plus since the SCOTUS’ decision to strike down PASPA.
It’s almost as if everyone forgets the leagues have thrived with remarkably few betting scandals despite illegal sports wagering being a perpetually pervasive activity.
A reasoned approach is the best bet
Hoping for the best and preparing for the worst is a prudent philosophy in many areas of life. When it comes to keeping the players’ welfare in mind as the games they play are increasingly wagered on, the unions certainly have a right and a role (although they’ll eventually have to figure out/clarify what exactly the latter is going to be).
Yet, there’s a thin line between prudent precaution and paranoia. Some of the misgivings and fears about legalized sports betting that currently run rampant will prove misguided over time.
Even as legalized sports betting progressively spreads, athletes are likely to be about as revered or despised as they’ve always been. And sometimes, both within the space of a single game. After all, fan fickleness is a tradition as old as plunking a few bucks down on a contest.
As for those online trolls that’ll insist on acting like a certain body orifice after a bad beat? In the social media age, “blocking” ain’t just for running backs anymore.