Politics and the Sports Betting Industry--A Scourge of Vipers
Ever place a bet on a sporting event? If you’re like most Americans, the answer is yes. About eighty-five percent of us gamble on sports at least occasionally, even though doing so is illegal nearly everywhere in the United States.
And boy, does it add up. The total we bet on sports annually, much of it on the Super Bowl and the Mach Madness basketball tournament, is estimated to be three hundred and eighty billion dollars. It’s a big number that looks even bigger when you count up all the zeros:
To put it in perspective, that’s six times greater than the budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
In other words, the stakes are high.
No wonder, then, that all hell breaks loose in A Scourge of Vipers when Rhode Island’s fictional governor, a former religious sister known as Attila the Nun, proposes legalizing sports gambling to ease the state’s budget crisis.
I got the idea for this novel a couple of years ago when Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, where I now live, proposed legalizing sports betting so he could tax it. But Christie, like my fictional governor, faces enormous obstacles.
For one thing, a governor would need to persuade the U.S. Congress to repeal the federal law that makes sports gambling illegal everywhere but in Nevada and three other states that were grandfathered in. Either that or successfully challenge the law in court.
For another thing, legalization has powerful enemies. The NCAA is dead set against it. The four major professional sports leagues oppose it too (although the NBA recent softened its stance), claiming it would damage the integrity of their games. The Las Vegas casinos are eager to hold onto their near-monopoly on legal sports gambling. And organized crime organizations are aghast at the prospect of seeing their bookmaking business wiped out.
But legalization also has powerful friends. Some public-employee unions see it as a way to save their endangered pension plans. Some casino owners outside of Nevada are salivating at the chance to get into dive into the lucrative sports-betting business. And then there are those hard-pressed governors desperate for a way to balance their budgets without raising taxes.
Most of the pro- and anti-legalization forces have very deep pockets. As soon as Christie floated his idea, I was saw the makings of a great hard-boiled crime novel.
In A Scourge of Vipers, the NCAA, the major sports leagues, casino operators, public employee unions, organized crime figures, and others with a lot to lose—or gain—if Attila the Nun should get her way, flood the state with millions of dollars in cash to buy the votes of state legislators. Some of them do it legally, with big campaign donations. Others aren’t above slipping envelopes into politicians’ pockets.
All that money pouring into an economically-depressed state where the average campaign for the state legislature costs just ten thousand dollars.
Before long, things take an uglier turn. A powerful state legislator turns up dead. A mobbed-up bagman gets shot down. And his cash-stuffed briefcase goes missing.
Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper (and the protagonist of my three earlier novels) wants to dig into the story, but the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently bought the once proud daily has no interest in serious reporting. So Mulligan, who’s never been inclined to follow orders, goes rogue, investigating on his own.
Soon, he finds himself the target of shadowy forces that seek to derail him by threatening his reputation, his career, and even his life.
The writers I most enjoy reading are the ones who use the popular form of the crime novel to explore important social issues. George Pelecanos, Lippman, Richard Price, and James Lee Burke are among those who spring immediately to mind. It’s not surprising, then, that while each of my novels works as a suspenseful murder mystery, each also has a serious underlying theme. For example, the Edgar Award-winning Rogue Island explores the high price the American democracy is paying for the decline of newspapers. And Cliff Walk examines what the era of ubiquitous pornography is doing to American attitudes about sexual morality and religion.
A Scourge of Vipers gave me the opportunity to write about the hypocrisy surrounding legal and illegal sports betting. For example, not only the federal government but most states have laws against it, yet they see nothing wrong with raking in hundreds of millions of dollars from state lotteries. And the sports leagues that oppose legalization know full-well that they profit handsomely from sports gambling. After all, it’s the reason a lot of people follow sports. Furthermore, keeping sports gambling illegal helps keep a lot of organized crime organizations in business.
The story also allowed me to explore one of the major issues of our time--the impact of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and the corrupting influence of big money on politics.
While the new novel has a serious purpose, the tone is lighter than my other Mulligan novels. The first three were strewn with innocent victims. But in A Scourge of Vipers, most of the people who get hurt had it coming.