Damion Baugh boarded the TCU team bus after the Horned Frogs' second-round loss to Gonzaga like the rest of his teammates, quiet and dejected. Their season had just ended in an 84-81 defeat, a disappointing close loss to a top-10 team for the second NCAA tournament in a row.
Baugh's mood was briefly boosted when a team manager showed him a video of fans in a sportsbook celebrating Baugh's 3-pointer at the buzzer. His shot cut Gonzaga's margin of victory from six to three -- irrelevant to the outcome of the game but crucial to an increasing number of people across the United States.
Gonzaga was favored to beat TCU by around four points, so Baugh's shot flipped the point spread result. People who bet on the Bulldogs went from winners to losers in 0.7 seconds. Baugh's Instagram was flooded with direct messages from angry bettors. He's not alone.
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," and in March a group of college sports officials, state gambling regulators and sportsbook executives met to discuss how to deal with the problem.
"Colleges are stressed about it and have loads of instances of athletes being abused," said Mark Potter, head of delivery for Epic Risk Management, an international advocacy group dedicated to fighting problem gambling. "One college had over 200 [instances]."
Baugh had never experienced the gambling angle of social media abuse until his shot against Gonzaga. He clapped back on Twitter.
I Don't Get How Y'all Mad Because I Played Until The Last Buzzer🤦🏾♂️Proud Of My Team And We Taught To Fight Until The End......Nobody Told Y'all To Bet🤷🏾♂️— DAM10N BAUGH (@_swaggyd10_) March 20, 2023
"Everybody playing sports growing up, we play until the whistle, play until the end of the game," he said. "People just forgot about that. Saying I shouldn't have taken the shot is saying, 'We don't care about the game. We just wanted to win our money.'
"I feel like tweeting at college athletes, period, is insane," he added. "I think it's because people think, 'I can say whatever to him because I know he can't say anything back.' It's getting out of hand."
IN 2018, WHEN the Supreme Court overturned a federal statute on sports betting, just over 1% of the U.S. population had access to legal sportsbooks in their state. Five years later, 56% of Americans live in a jurisdiction with legal sports betting. While athletes received social media abuse before, players and experts interviewed by ESPN said it's escalating as sports gambling spreads, primarily in the men's game, but women's sports likely will be targeted more as the betting market grows.
On Jan. 17, just 16 days after Ohio launched its sports betting market, Dayton men's basketball coach Anthony Grant publicly addressed his team's experience with social media abuse by gamblers.
"There's some laws that have recently been enacted that, really to me, could really change the landscape of what college sports is about," Grant told reporters. "And when we have people that make it about themselves and attack kids, because of their own agenda, it sickens me."
In 2019, according to court records, Benjamin Patz, a 23-year-old bettor, sent threatening direct messages from an anonymous account to an unnamed Pepperdine basketball player: "Your throat will be severed open with a dull knife." "Your entire family will be beheaded and burned alive." "Watch your back, you're a dead man walking." Patz might have been angry about lost wagers or tried to influence upcoming events he had bet on, according to court records. He pleaded guilty to one count of transmitting threats in interstate or foreign commerce and was sentenced to 36 months of probation.
A Furman men's basketball player who spoke on condition of anonymity said he receives abusive social media messages "all the time," even after wins "if we don't cover the spread." He said the abuse escalates when the games are on national TV.
"People say, 'Y'all suck, y'all blew it,' 'You lost me such and such amount of money since you can't even make a f---ing layup,' 'Your mom should have swallowed you.' Some of the messages are much worse than others," he said. "This has been pretty new, honestly. I'd say more so in this past year. I know people have been betting for a while, but now that it's legalized, it's just been more."
Adam Flagler, a senior guard for Baylor who is Black, said the abusive direct messages he received on Instagram have often contained racial slurs, including the N-word.
"I'm not proud of saying that I have experienced angry messages, but I have," Flagler told ESPN. "I have been threatened for my life. Many have told me I should never play basketball again and have said things about my mom. Anything they felt would get to me."
Flagler said his girlfriend deletes most of the messages for him, but he did share one with ESPN that included racial slurs and ended with "I hope you die you motherf---er."
ON MARCH 7, a group of approximately 125 collegiate sports officials, state gambling regulators and sportsbook executives met to discuss potential ways to fight this type of harassment.
The hourlong conference call began with an anecdote about a backup guard who missed late free throws that would've covered a double-digit point spread in a West Coast Conference basketball game. The guard, who played only because the game was a blowout loss, received a death threat on social media afterward from a person authorities determined to be a bettor.
Gloria Nevarez, then-commissioner of the WCC, told ESPN the conference went into a "high-alert state" after being notified about the threat. It contacted U.S. Integrity, a watchdog organization, and eventually the FBI, which, according to Nevarez, tracked down the perpetrator on the East Coast and confronted him in person.
"It just brought us a tremendous amount of relief," Nevarez, now commissioner of the Mountain West Conference, told ESPN about the incident's resolution, "because you don't know what you don't know."
Matt Holt, president of U.S. Integrity, said the uptick in incidents prompted him to organize the conference call, and the passionate response made him realize that this is a rare issue that unites all sides of the sports and gambling industries.
"Anybody who is harassing student-athletes based on betting, it's a clear indication that they have a gambling problem and should be seeking help and not continue to actively participate in any legal gambling sites," said Casey Clark, senior vice president for the American Gaming Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group that represents the casino industry.
Keith Whyte, executive director of the National Council on Problem Gambling, said that while not everyone who sends social media abuse to athletes has a gambling problem, there is a "huge overlap."
"Most people with gambling problems also have substance abuse or mental health disorders," Whyte said. "These things all cluster together, and social media facilitates it, but so does the culture that is promoted, even by people in the sports betting community."
Holt says the coalition will create regional groups and begin urging lawmakers to take action on the issue. Ohio is considering regulations that would prohibit bettors found to have harassed athletes from betting with the state's licensed sportsbooks. After the comments by Dayton coach Grant, Ohio governor Mike DeWine, a lifelong Flyers fan, included language in the state budget bill that makes sending betting-related threats against athletes a crime. West Virginia also introduced legislation this year aimed at combating threats made to athletes.
"You have these lowlifes that somehow believe that the people that are there, on the field of play, are there to make money for them. Like someone who would bet on a horse," said Matt Schuler, executive director of the Ohio Casino Control Commission.
According to the FBI, social media abuse becomes a crime when it's tied to "an imminent threat to life" or includes threats against the "wellbeing of an athlete or their family members."
"When these and other factors are met, that's when the line between criticism and illegality is crossed," Beto Quiroga, an FBI supervisory special agent, told ESPN.
Betting has become pervasive in American sports over the past five years. Thirty-three states now have legal betting markets, and sportsbooks have increased their advertising dramatically. In 2019, the first full year of expanded regulated sports betting, sportsbook brands spent $21.4 million on national TV commercials. In 2022, that figure grew to $314.6 million, according to data from iSpot, a company that measures TV advertising and audiences.
The NCAA has kept its distance from betting more than professional sports leagues have and prohibits sportsbooks from advertising during broadcasts. It also requires Division I colleges to have mental health resources on campus and encourages athletes who receive social media abuse to alert their coaches. But it is still feeling the effects of the new landscape.
Connor McCaffery, a senior guard who plays for his father, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, has been working with Sportradar, an international sports data and integrity monitor, to encourage student-athletes to protect their mental health. He has sought counseling to help him deal with social media abuse. "It's very prevalent," he said. "And 100 percent, there's been an uptick in the last year or two."
Sportradar's investigation unit, led by a former intelligence officer in the British Armed Forces, has tracked down social media trolls in the U.K. and referred them to law enforcement. The group is also trying to tackle the issue in the U.S., but officials have noticed a difference in rhetoric.
Jim Brown, a former NCAA official who now heads Sportradar's integrity and athlete well-being services in North America, said that internationally, in more mature betting markets than the one in the U.S., social media abuse is rarely specific to gambling.
"Sports betting harassment online isn't as prevalent in the international space," Brown said. "I'm curious as to why we are seeing it in North America."
Experts believe the new wave of bettors might be having difficulty enduring the emotional swings gambling can produce and then resort to lashing out at athletes on social media. It's not necessarily a new phenomenon, but with the betting market growing, Potter said, "The reality is it's going to get worse."
ESPN reporter Jeff Borzello and freelance journalist Olivia Robinson contributed to this report.