Sports Wagering, Prop Bets, and Student-Athlete Mental Health

May 3, 2024

By Kasey Havekost and Joel Nielsen, Bricker Graydon LLP

Only a few days into legalized sporting gambling in Ohio last January, Anthony Grant, the head men’s basketball coach at the University of Dayton, expressed frustration in a postgame press conference that his players received hateful messages after losing a game.  Unfortunately, this is now a common thread among prolific college sporting events due to the legalization of sports gambling at the state level – and the exploding popularity of prop bets.

Proposition betting, better known as “prop bets,” are growing in the sports gambling industry. To know why prop betting is problematic is to understand what they are. Prop bets are oftentimes wagers put on a certain individual athlete to accomplish a certain performance and are typically not tied to the final score. For example, Lebron James scoring over 35 points in a certain game or when Patrick Mahomes completes his first touchdown pass in a game.

Because these bets rely on certain players, it makes sense that these types of bets may increase the harassment and targeting of individual athletes, including athletes at the collegiate level. In an era of prioritizing student-athlete mental health, the next question is how can we collectively protect student-athletes from this relativity new added stressor of backlash from sports gamblers? 

The NCAA’s Lobbying Efforts

One way to protect athletes is through the NCAA’s unified and multifaceted approach. This past year, the NCAA has taken steps to better understand sports wagering and how it is impacting student-athletes on campus. In May 2023, the NCAA released findings of a survey of student-athletes on the topicand in September 2023, the NCAA released findings of a survey of campus compliance directors experience. Notably, of the autonomy five compliance administrators, around 25% were aware of student-athletes on their campus who were harassed (online or in person) by someone with gambling interests.

To try and combat this growing issue, the NCAA announced it would “begin advocating in state legislatures for updated sports betting laws that protect student-athletes from harassment and protect the integrity of college games.” Part of this plan includes lobbying states to prohibit prop bets in collegiate events. Before the NCAA’s push, nine of the 38 states that have legalized sports gambling already banned prop bets in collegiate sports.[1] To date, the NCAA’s recent efforts have been somewhat successful. For example, Ohio Governor Mike DeWine announced his support for banning prop bets after receiving a letter from NCAA President Charlie Baker, and the Ohio Casino Control Commission subsequently banned prop bets effective February 28, 2024. Three other states took similar steps in banning player-specific prop bets this spring.[2]

In addition to working with state lawmakers, the NCAA is implementing an anti-social media harassment pilot program and collaborating with partners to provide educational resources and monitor the integrity of competitions, all in hope of curbing the negative impacts of legalized sports gambling.[3]

On Campus Support for Student-Athlete Mental Health

Another way to protect student-athletes is to prioritize mental health on your campus in an attempt to counteract these unsolicited attacks.

The past decade has seen a noticeable increase in supporting student-athlete mental health initiatives and many schools have made investments in personnel and programs to support student-athletes. For example, in 2022, the NCAA codified in its Constitution and bylaws that every school has the obligation to inform, educate, and engage with student-athletes, coaches, administrators, and staff on mental health topics.[4] And, earlier this year, the NCAA updated its Mental Health Best Practices document, which all Division I, II, and III members are required to follow and Division I members also have to attest in November 2025 that they are following this document.

However, a 2022 Mantra Health and National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics study reported that 90% of athletics directors did not feel that their institutions offer enough training or psychiatric support services for coaches and student-athletes. Also, over 90% indicated that their athletic departments do not have psychiatric support services available for their student-athletes but would like to provide them.

So, what can be done?

First, athletics directors need to look for creative solutions (and possibly experts!) on campus. Identify partnerships with other administrative areas like the Office of Student Affairs, to collaborate on personnel, programs and resources that can assist students and student-athletes alike. The same approach can be used with academic units on campus, especially those that are interested in providing internships or practicum experiences for their graduate programs (Clinical Mental Health Counseling).

Second, seek out online resources, including those offered by the NCAA, that can provide valuable information and resources for student-athletes, coaches, and staff.

Thirdly, consider onboarding members of your athletic department staff to help recognize students who may be showing signs of mental health issues and provide those staff members with resources on how to assist.

The proliferation of sports wagering, including prob bets and the harassment that can follow, has most certainly added increased stress levels of student-athletes, impacting their mental health. It’s critical that administrators are aware of this issue and proactively address the need for more resources.  The NCAA and campuses have made significant progress in modernizing their approach to sports wagering – but the work is not done yet.

[1] These states include Arizona, Colorado, Massachusetts, Oregon, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia.

[2] These states include Maryland, Vermont, and Louisiana.  


[4] See NCAA Constitution, Article 1, Section D; Article 2, Section A and D; NCAA Division I Bylaw 16.4.2; NCAA Division II and Division III Bylaw 16.4.1.

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