Rising Tide of Death Threats and Online Abuse Against College Athletes Raises Alarms


In recent years, college athletes have increasingly become targets of death threats and online abuse, a troubling trend highlighted by incidents during this year’s NCAA Tournaments.

Angel Reese, a player for LSU, revealed receiving death threats since her team’s victory in 2023, while Iowa’s Gabbie Marshall faced similar harassment after a game-clinching foul against UConn. These disturbing incidents underscore a pervasive issue facing young athletes in the digital age.

Death Threats and Online Abuse Impact Mental Health

The prevalence of death threats and abusive messages directed at college athletes has reached alarming levels, with approximately one in three high-profile athletes reported to receive such messages, according to recent data cited by NCAA president, Charlie Baker. The majority of this harassment originates online or through social media platforms, exacerbating the impact on athletes’ mental well-being.

Former college basketball player Etan Thomas reflects on his experience in the late 1990s, noting that while heckling and criticism from fans were not uncommon, the advent of social media has intensified the abuse to unprecedented levels.

Black athletes, in particular, have historically faced disproportionate levels of abuse and racism, with the rise of social media amplifying these toxic behaviors.

Juwan Howard, a member of Michigan’s Fab Five, emphasizes the detrimental impact of social media on athletes’ mental health, highlighting the influx of racist and hateful messages directed at his team during their playing days. The accessibility afforded by social media platforms has removed barriers between fans and athletes, enabling instantaneous and often vitriolic interactions.

The normalization of sports gambling in the United States has further exacerbated the issue, as disgruntled bettors direct their frustration toward athletes perceived to have influenced betting outcomes. Carson Barrett, a player for Purdue, received death threats after his game-altering three-pointer affected betting outcomes, underscoring the dangerous consequences of intertwining sports and gambling.

Amanda Blackford, director of operations and responsible gambling at the Ohio Casino Control Commission, emphasizes the correlation between the legalization of sports gambling and increased harassment towards athletes. The convergence of social media and sports betting has created a volatile environment where athletes are subjected to unwarranted abuse and threats.

Despite the gravity of these incidents, the targets of such abuse are often young athletes who are not compensated for their labor nor adequately protected from online harassment. Jordan Bohannon, a former senior at Iowa, highlights the collective toll that threats and abuse take on college athletes, emphasizing the need for action to address this pervasive issue.

Even professional athletes are not immune to online abuse, with figures like Deion Sanders and Shelby Rogers disclosing their experiences with death threats and harassment. The failure to enforce existing legislation, such as the Communications Act of 2003, which prohibits sending grossly offensive or menacing messages, further exacerbates the vulnerability of athletes to online abuse.

In response to these challenges, there is a growing call for action from teams, colleges, universities, and the NCAA to prioritize the safety and well-being of student-athletes. Efforts to enforce existing laws and regulations, coupled with initiatives to enhance mental health support and online security measures, are imperative to combat the scourge of online abuse in sports.

In conclusion, the epidemic of death threats and online harassment targeting college athletes underscores the urgent need for comprehensive measures to safeguard their well-being and dignity in an increasingly digital and volatile landscape.

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