Thursday, April 9, 2015

author guest post: bruce desilva

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The plot of Bruce DeSilva's excellent A Scourge of Vipers involves the world of sports gambling. Here, DeSilva shares his thoughts on the subject.

Gambling on sports, the popular but mostly illegal pastime that forms the backdrop for my new novel, A Scourge of Vipers, is very much a part of the national conversation right now. 

For one thing, the NCAA’s Annual March Madness basketball tournament, which just drew to a close, generates more gambling, both in the number of bettors and the total dollars wagered, than any other sporting event including the Super Bowl. 

For another thing, a number of governors, with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie leading the way, are seeking to legalize sports betting so they can ease their states’ budget crises by taxing the revenue. 

When Christie, a Republican who wants to be the next president of the United States, first broached the idea a couple of years ago, it struck me right off that the subject had the makings of a rip-roaring crime novel. 

It also struck me that any governor who wants to legalize sports betting has a lot of obstacles to overcome. 

For one thing, most states have vice laws prohibiting gambling on sporting events—although they gleefully rake in millions of dollars selling chump scratch tickets and lottery numbers games to the suckers. For another thing, federal law makes sports gambling illegal in every state but Nevada and three others that were grandfathered in. So to legalize it, governors would have to repeal their own state laws and then get a paralyzed U.S. Congress to overturn the federal law. Either that or successfully challenge the federal prohibition in the courts. 

None of this is likely to be easy, because legalization has powerful enemies with very deep pockets. 

The NCAA is dead-set against it, threatening to pull March Madness regionals from states that make sports gambling legal. The major professional sports leagues have been vehemently opposed for years (although the NBA commissioner softened his stance recently.) Las Vegas casinos are eager to maintain their near-monopoly on legal sports betting. And organized crime organizations are aghast at the prospect of having their bookmaking revenues dry up. 

On the other side of the issue are a number of public-employee unions who view taxing sports gambling as a way to save their threatened pension systems. And some casino operators outside of Las Vegas are salivating at the chance to jump into the legal sports gambling business. 

The amount of money at stake is enormous. About eighty-five percent of us bet on sports at least occasionally. And the total wagered, most of it illegally, is estimated at three hundred and eighty billion dollars a year. 

To put it in perspective, that’s six times greater than the annual budget of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

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 because of her take-no-prisoners style of politics, proposes legalizing sports gambling to ease her state’s budget problems. 

Forces with a lot to lose—or gain—if she gets her way immediately flood the state with millions of dollars to buy the votes of the state’s politicians. Some of them do it with big campaign donations. Others aren’t above slipping envelopes into politicians’ pockets. All this in a little state where the average campaign for the state legislature costs just ten thousand dollars. 

When a powerful state senator turns up dead, a mobbed-up bagman gets shot down, and his cash-stuffed briefcase goes missing, my protagonist Liam Mulligan, an investigative reporter for a dying Providence, R.I., newspaper, wants to dig into the story. But the bottom-feeding conglomerate that recently bought the once proud daily has no interest in serious public-interest 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. 

This topic gave me the opportunity not only to write a suspenseful mystery but also to explore two subjects that have long interested me—the corrupting influence of big money on politics and the hypocrisy surrounding sports gambling. 

The former—made immeasurably worse since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision—is well understood; but the latter is a less-familiar subject to most of us. 

Opponents of legalization have been spewing the same talking points for years:
 Legalizing sports betting would irreparably harm the integrity of college and professional games, creating a climate of suspicion about controversial plays, officiating calls, and players’ performances.
 It would expand the amount of money wagered on sports, increasing the temptation to fix results.
 It would infringe on the leagues’ intellectual property, encouraging gambling operations to use proprietary information including statistics, injury reports, and team logos. 

Much of that sounds reasonable unless you acknowledge the fact that billions are already wagered on sports. Gamblers don’t need any more incentive than they already have to fix games. 

In fact, legalization would be more likely to deter game-fixing than to encourage it because the amount wagered would be public knowledge. The Arizona State point-shaving scandal some years back was exposed because somebody bet an obscene amount of money legally in Las Vegas, and alarm bells went off. 

Gambling is one of the main reasons a lot of people follow sports. The NCAA and the professional sports leagues know this, and they profit handsomely from the filled arenas and the TV contracts all that interest generates. That’s why they don’t object when sports writers cite point spreads. 

Gambling, like any vice, is harmful to individuals who engage in it to excess, but is sports gambling any more immoral than state lotteries and Indian casinos? And illegal or not, most Americans bet on sports anyway. 

Keeping it illegal does little more than help mobbed-up bookies stay in business.

Bruce DeSilva’s crime fiction has won the Edgar and Macavity Awards; has been listed as a finalist for the Shamus, Anthony, and Barry Awards; and has been published in ten foreign languages. His short stories have appeared in Akashic Press's award-winning noir anthologies. He has reviewed books for The New York Times Sunday Book Review, Publishers Weekly, and The Associated Press. Previously, he was a journalist for forty years, most recently as writing coach world-wide for the AP, editing stories that won every major journalism award including the Pulitzer. His fourth novel, A Scourge of Vipers, has just been published by Forge in hardcover and e-book editions.

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