Massachusetts regulators could give additional consideration to the safety of players in their rules for sports betting sites — and not just the players who gamble.
That was the request made to the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC) on Monday when the regulatory body met publicly with representatives from several professional player unions.
Top of the list of concerns for the unions, such as the National Football League Players Association, is the safety of athletes and their families, who they worry could become the target of angry sports bettors.
While unruly fans are nothing new for sports, unruly gamblers are a newer phenomenon, especially with the recent legalization and ongoing implementation of sports betting in Massachusetts and other states.
“The concerns we have… are there merely because of the fans' interests and passion in who wins the game,” said Steve Fehr, special counsel for the National Hockey League Players Association, during Monday’s meeting. “When you add to it now they may have bet on certain aspects of the game, and the performance of a certain player may excite or disappoint the fans, the concern is even more heightened.”
Massachusetts' sports-betting law allows a governing body or player association to request restrictions on wagering if they believe that action is contrary to public policy, unfair to consumers, or if it may undermine the integrity of the athletes or events. A letter to the MGC on behalf of the player associations proposed language for potential regulations along those lines in the name of keeping athletes and their families safe.
One rule proposed by the unions would ban a certain type of wagering or betting on a certain event if the gaming commission "determines reports of violence, threats or other acts of intimidation against players, coaches, officials or their families to be credible.”
The MGC could do the same if another form of prohibited conduct is discovered, according to the proposed language. The regulation would incentivize leagues, teams, and arenas to ensure athletes and their families are protected from violence, the unions say.
“The Players know that they will be targeted by potential losing sports [bettors], and importantly, know that their family members will also be targeted,” it says. “These instances have already occurred in different parts of the U.S. and other countries, and they and their families should be protected by Massachusetts regulations. In fact, there have been several well-publicized incidents over the last year involving unruly fan behavior in which players’ safety has been at risk including one at the TD Garden [in Boston].”
Almost game time
The comments and concerns from the player unions come about a week before the launch of legal sports betting in Massachusetts. Three casinos in the state can start taking wagers on January 31, followed by the introduction of statewide mobile sports wagering in March.
Concerns about angry gamblers contacting athletes are being heard outside of Massachusetts as well. Regulators in Ohio, for instance, recently suggested they have the power to ban people from gambling if they threaten athletes.
The unions proposed to the MGC that the definition of "prohibited conduct" includes actions taken to influence or manipulate the outcome of an event for financial gain, among other things. The prohibited behavior should cover statements made via social media, the PAs suggested.
Those definitions have been used by other states for their wagering laws, the unions say, including in Illinois and Virginia.
Player unions are also interested in including some deference to collective bargaining agreements in the Massachusetts rules, particularly when it comes to the conduct of athletes.
“Providing deference to rules collectively negotiated between a league and its Players Association governing player safety, misuse of personal biometric data, coordination with inquiries in other states, and the investigation and resolution of a gambling related charge involving a professional athlete is both important and practical,” the September 2022 letter states. “It ensures that Players and the Leagues are protected by collectively bargaining rules and procedures, while also ensuring that the unique aspects of each collective bargaining agreement, which differ among the sports, can be accommodated.”
The MGC took all of the comments under advisement and could decide to take their suggestions. MGC Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said the commission will work on regulatory language to ensure the safety and well-being of players are addressed.
“And, I think, commissioners, we're going to at least want to have that information clear and then we assess our next steps,” Judd-Stein said. “But from my perspective, that's going to be paramount, that we make sure that in Massachusetts no one can intimidate officials, family members, and the athletes themselves, that are being bet on to provide entertainment for the residents of Massachusetts.”