Representatives of the MLB Players Association, NFL Players Association, National Basketball Players Association, and NHL Players’ Association appeared before the Massachusetts Gaming Commission on Monday asking for fairness for their members as the launch of Massachusetts sports betting approaches.
Steve Fehr, special counsel to the NHL Players’ Association, pointed out that sports betting “is built on the backs of the players. Quite literally the revenue is generated entirely by the performance of the players.”
Based on that, Fehr and his colleagues are seeking a voice for athletes in how matters of concern are handled.
Lobbyists and union representatives spoke at a virtual open meeting of the MGC that lasted nearly an hour, addressing a wide range of issues. Central in the discussion were the topics of player safety and due process.
Massachusetts will launch retail sports betting at 10 a.m. on Jan. 31, with online sportsbooks set to enter the market in March.
Athlete Safety Cited as Concern by Union Representatives
Last year, a lobbying group called The Players Association sent a letter to the MGC that outlined concerns over player safety after sports betting goes live. The letter stated that athletes in Massachusetts:
“ … 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.”
“When you have more betting, you have increased tension, increased anxiety and increased anger,” said David Foster, deputy general counsel to the NBPA. “Oftentimes, the teams and the leagues [struggle] a little bit when it comes to enforcing discipline on fans, because fans are the ones that are driving the revenue.”
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Foster and others at the meeting asked the MGC to consider strong policies to discipline bettors who make threats toward athletes or associated families or team personnel. Suggestions included banning an offender from betting in the state if they make a credible threat. Such policies would encourage athletes to come forward if they are threatened or intimidated.
Such a policy may not be within the purview of the state, however. MGC general counsel Todd Grossman explained that while the state has a process for consumers to self-exclude from sports betting, it does not have one for forcible exclusion.
What Did the MGC Say?
MGC Chairwoman Cathy Judd-Stein was favorable to representatives of the athlete unions, but also mentioned safety of others involved in sporting events. She wished to “make sure that in Massachusetts no one can intimidate officials, family members and the athletes themselves.”
There have been isolated incidents of threatening behavior in other states that have legalized sports betting, but it’s unusual.
In 2019, a former soccer player at Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, was charged with making threats to pro and collegiate athletes on social media. He pled guilty to criminal charges and was sentenced to 18 months in prison. That case did not rely on gaming laws, but rather was handled via the criminal code.
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Investigative Care and Confidentiality Sought
Matt Nussbaum, general counsel for the MLBPA, addressed the issue of due process for athletes in his comments to the MGC.
“We’re particularly looking for a certain level of deference in the area of investigations and disciplinary matters,” Nussbaum said.
He explained that often in the case of accusations of misconduct by athletes themselves in regards to sports betting, guilt is cast as soon as accusations are made. Members of the MLBPA and the other unions represented at Monday’s meeting are prohibited from betting on their own sports.
Nussbaum seemed to be pressing for the MGC to lean on MLB to investigate matters of impropriety.
“The commissioner’s office has an entire investigative department that’s full of former US attorneys, and state prosecutors,” Nussbaum said. “And they investigate any allegation of improper betting by players, improper betting by fans very thoroughly.
“We have collectively bargained very important confidentiality provisions that govern all of the investigatory mechanisms.”
The MLBPA represents more than 6,000 athletes at the major league as well as minor league levels of baseball.
Fehr pointed out that even though athletes are the driving force behind sports betting, as they determine the outcomes, “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.”