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Massachusetts joins with NCAA, sports teams to tackle gambling among young people

BOSTON (AP) — Top Massachusetts officials joined with NCAA President and former Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on Thursday to announce a new initiative aimed at tackling the public health harms associated with sports gambling among young people.

Baker said those harms extend not just to young people making bets, but to student athletes coming under enormous pressure from bettors hoping to cash in on their individual performances.

Baker said he spoke to hundreds of college athletes before officially stepping into the role of president about a year ago, and he said they talked about the tremendous pressure they feel from classmates and bettors about their individual performance.

“The message I kept getting from them is there’s so much of this going on, it’s very hard for us to just stay away from it,” he said.

Baker said student athletes pointed to classmates who wanted to talk to them about "how’s so-and-so doing? Is he or she going to be able to play this weekend? What do you think your chances are?”

“It was the exact same conversations I was having with my classmates and schoolmates in the ’70s. But back then it was just chatter in the cafeteria or the dining hall," added Baker, who played basketball at Harvard University. “Now it’s currency.”

Massachusetts Attorney General Andrea Campbell said that since the state made sports betting legal in 2022, a bill signed by Baker, Massachusetts has essentially become a participant in the market.

The creates a burden on the state to make sports betting as safe as possible, she said.

“Think about it. We’re putting an addictive product — gambling — on a very addictive device, your smartphone,” she said. “We’ve gone from sports gambling being illegal nearly everywhere to being legal in dozens of states throughout the country in just a matter of a few years."

In Massachusetts, it is illegal for anyone under 21 to wager on sports or in casinos.

Because young people are going to be influenced more by the teams they support than by state government officials, Campbell said it is critical to create a public/private partnership like the new initiative she unveiled Thursday, the Youth Sports Betting Safety Coalition.

Campbell said members of the coalition include the Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics, the Boston Bruins, the New England Patriots, the New England Revolution and the NCAA. The goal is to craft a sports betting education, training, and safety curriculum for young people 12 to 20, she said.

NCAA data found 58% of 18- to 22-year-olds have engaged in at least one sports betting activity, while the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found about half of middle school students are estimated to have engaged some form of gambling, Campbell said.

Baker said the NCAA is pushing states with legal sports gambling to bar “prop bets” — short for proposition bets — which allow gamblers to wager on the statistics a player will accumulate during a game rather than the final score.

Baker also said the NCAA's survey of students found that they were betting at essentially the same rate whether it was legal for them or not. It also found that one out of three student athletes has been harassed by bettors and one of 10 students has a gambling problem.

“It's basically a 50-state issue even if it's only legal in 38. And if you think kids under the age of 21 aren't doing this, you're kidding yourselves,” he said at the news conference at Boston's TD Garden.

He said the ugliness and brutality of some of the messages on social media platforms of some of the athletes in the NCAA tournaments is disturbing.

Last year, NCAA officials considered a threat by a bettor serious enough to a team that they gave them 24/7 police protections until they left the tournament, he said.

“For student athletes in particular, this is an enormously challenging issue, and for a lot of the ones that are really in the bright lights, as many here will be tonight, this is just one more thing I think all of us would like to see taken off the table,” he said.