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With sports betting soon to begin in Massachusetts, pro players want protection from angry bettors

Gamblers place bets in the temporary sports-betting area at the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia on Dec. 13, 2018.
Matt Rourke
Gamblers place bets in the temporary sports-betting area at the SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia on Dec. 13, 2018.

As it prepares to launch sports betting in Massachusetts next week, the Gaming Commission plans to take a closer look at where it might be able to tighten its regulations to address concerns that players' associations have about the safety of professional athletes, their family members and on-field officials, commissioners said Monday.

The Players' Association, a collective that includes representatives from the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL and Major League Soccer players associations, has asked that the Gaming Commission include language in its regulations to outline safety measures for players, family members and others, and the penalties for fans and bettors who make threats against them. The group said it was open to a host of options, from prohibiting people who make threats from betting in Massachusetts to shutting down all betting here on a particular game or sport.

"I think there is a particular reason why you ought to give serious consideration to what we're asking for. And that is because this industry, the sports betting industry, is built on the backs of the players. Quite literally the revenue is generated entirely by the performance of the players," Steve Fehr, special counsel to the National Hockey League Players Association, said. "And yet, we are not here today with our hand out asking for money. All we are asking for today in this process is that you consider some things that will make things safer, and make sports betting better and more fair."

In a September letter in which it gave examples of specific language it would like to see included in Massachusetts regulations, the group said that the players it represents "know that they will be targeted by potential losing sports betters, and importantly, know that their family members will also be targeted. 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 the letter and during Monday's roundtable, the player representatives cited situations of unruly fan behavior "in which players' safety has been at risk including one at the TD Garden." The group on Monday cited a 2018 incident in which a fan threw a beer at Tyreek Hill during a Patriots game, and a handful of other incidents from events around the country.

In 2019, as state lawmakers were considering legalizing sports betting here, the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts announced charges against a 23-year-old former Babson College soccer player from California who posted death threats to the Instagram accounts of at least 45 professional and college athletes between the end of July 2017 and the beginning of December 2017. The man pleaded guilty in 2019 and was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

"There's always a thought that the leagues or the teams are best suited to handle some of these issues, for example, when it comes to safety. I think we're in a unique position to explain that oftentimes they actually are not, and need a gentle or forceful nudge from government bodies," David Foster, deputy general counsel to the National Basketball Players Association, said. He added, "When you have more betting, you have increased tension, increased anxiety and increased anger. Oftentimes, the teams and the leagues they struggle a little bit when it comes to enforcing discipline on fans, because fans are the ones that are driving the revenue."

The association and its lobbyists, Jim Eisenberg and Kris Erikson of Preti Strategies, said they envision it being a rare occurrence for the Gaming Commission to have to step in and that merely the ability for the commission to step in could be a deterrent on its own.

"I would hope the chances of you having to shut down a basketball game at the Garden are very small. However, there needs to be an ongoing dialogue between the teams, players associations, and the event arena owners in order to ensure player safety as sports wagering, mobile sports wagering especially," gets going, Eisenberg said.

Matt Nussbaum, general counsel for the Major League Baseball Players Association, said that a regulation allowing the Gaming Commission to disqualify certain individuals from betting in Massachusetts if they make threats against players or their families "is going to encourage players to come forward" when they are targeted at the ballpark or on social media.

Members of the Gaming Commission seemed receptive Monday, but were not entirely sure they had the power to do what was being asked of them or that they were the best ones to tackle the problem. Commission General Counsel Todd Grossman said he would have to take a "close look" at the issue and noted that while the sports betting law has language allowing voluntary self-exclusion, "I'd have to look at it a little bit more closely to see whether it addresses involuntary exclusion" in the same way the state's casino gaming law does.

"Offhand, I'm not aware of any such language, but it may certainly exist. But then the question will become, if it does not exist, whether the commission has authority to adopt such language in the regulations," Grossman said. "I think we're certainly aware of this issue now and perhaps we have been, but we will take a close look at that."

Commissioner Eileen O'Brien mentioned "the conundrum of an industry making its money off of the actions and the hard work of other individuals" and where responsibility for their safety and fair treatment lies.

"The primary responsibility would rest with the companies making that money and then also with the other companies that make the money in the first instance off the work of the athletes. So I do believe we can play a role in making sure that it is equitable and protect where we can; there is a limit. Obviously, our statutory limit only goes so far," she said. "But I am glad we had this conversation. I absolutely think that we need to be as aggressive as we can in our regulations to make sure we make as much of an impact as we're capable of making."

Fehr said he wanted the commissioners to keep in mind that "the gaming company has no relationship whatsoever with the players. So we have to rely on you and ourselves to do the best things we can."

Commissioner Nakisha Skinner said she thinks the commission "should absolutely prioritize" safety of players, their families and officials, but that she wanted to wait for Grossman's more in-depth analysis of whether the commission has the authority to take the steps the players associations were asking for.

"I believe that we do to some extent, but how far we extend that authority I think is an open discussion. And so I'm looking forward to having that discussion with my fellow commissioners," she said.

Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein was most direct, saying that the commission is "gonna work on the regulation language to make sure that we can address the safety and well-being of the players" and suggested that it might put some of the onus on the sports betting companies awarded licenses here.

"I think, commissioners, we're gonna at least want to have that information clear and then we assess our next steps. 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. They're being bet on to provide entertainment -- entertainment -- for the residents of Massachusetts," she said. "And the licensees are being awarded the opportunity to operate in Massachusetts, and so they're going to join us in that effort."

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