Internet Gambling vs Focus on Family
Internet poker's enemies are dropping like flies.
Out of the four main groups that fought for passage of the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act in an attempt to suffocate the industry four years ago, only one remains opposed to efforts to license and regulate online poker.
The latest to give up its opposition is the NFL, appeased by an amendment to Barney Frank's bill, which clarifies that a licensed site may not offer sports betting. The casino industry, led by Harrah's, has also come around and now supports the legislation for the most part. State lotteries used to think that any dollar gambled on the Internet was a dollar out of their pockets, but that paranoia died down and the lotteries are neutral.
The one opponent that won't give up so easily is Focus on the Family. To this right-wing religious group, Internet gambling is a crusade.
Focus on the Family was founded in 1977 by Dr. James Dobson, a family psychologist and evangelical Christian.
For Focus on the Family, this is a moral issue. Playing poker is a negative value that will harm your moral soul, and someone playing poker is foolishly using time that could be spent with the family or going to church.
FoF has been on Internet gambling since the beginning. Actually, since before the beginning for the current big sites like PokerStars and Full Tilt Poker. Dobson served on the National Gambling Impact Study Commission, which was tasked by Congress to conduct a comprehensive study of the social and economic impacts of gambling in the U.S. The study, released in 1999, had a section for Internet gambling and recommended that the federal government prohibit Internet gambling not already authorized in the country.
Focus on the Family's strength is concentrated in the Deep South and some of the Midwest. It still has a strong influence on politicians from those areas, as the poker community has seen in the past year from the staunch opposition of Frank's bill by Spencer Bachus (D-Ala.) in the House Financial Services Committee.
In 2006, Focus on the Family leaders started making noise in Congress that they weren't getting enough for their political support. They were pushing for the Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act. The NFL also fought for the bill. U.S. Casinos wanted a level playing field, either to be allowed to take part in Internet gambling or to stop it. Congress wasn't hearing much of anything from the other side, since poker players had yet to organize, so congressmen figured this was the right time to throw Focus on the Family a bone.
In response to the UIGEA, the Poker Players Alliance formed and poker players came together to fight back. Even now, Focus on the Family tries to be dismissive of the PPA as an industry group funded by foreign gambling interests, refusing to recognize the more than 1 million American individuals in the organization.
"Focus on the Family was really surprised by (the PPA's emergence)," said Rich Muny, a member of the PPA Board of Directors. "They started out saying we were fake. Then they found out we were real and still claimed we were fake. Then they say, 'So, you have 1 million but there's 17 million harmed (by Internet gambling).' We think they were caught flat-footed. They didn't see us coming and haven't reacted well at all."
The FoF isn't as strong as it once was. It was a powerful organization in the 1980s, during the "family values" era when Dobson was given a presidential appointment by Reagan, as well as appointments from the U.S. Army and Attorney General.
Let's face it, an organization can't wield much power when its core values are a joke to the majority of the country. Focus on the Family teaches that sex should only be between husband and wife, that divorce is immoral, that women with children under the age of 18 should not work outside the home and that homosexuality is a choice that can be overcome.
"I think a lot of legislators see the shadows from the past from these guys," Muny said. "They've seen what they used to be in 1985, and they are spooked by them. They're not the same anymore. Their bark is worse than their bite."
Congressmen are beginning to understand that now, as they get more letters and calls and e-mails from constituents wanting the freedom to play poker online than they do from those who think the activity is a sin.
Focus on the Family appears to be getting desperate. It cites stats from the biased and 11-year-old National Gambling Impact Study rather than recent and more accurate studies. It makes up a number that legalizing online gambling will lead to $25 billion in social cost for the increase in problem gamblers, though a study showed that the number of problem gamblers in the U.K. did not increase after legalization.
"It's like they don't care," Muny said. "They believe it is wrong so any fact that can bolster that is OK. I think they know they are being dishonest, but I don't think that concerns them that much."
Another opponent to federally licensed online poker has emerged in the past couple of years — the Indian tribes. The tribes already are torn on the issue. Some support the legislation while others hold out, either wanting to ensure they get a piece of the action or trying to protect their brick-and-mortar casino interests.
Like the other groups before them, it figures more of the Indian tribes will come around with the sort of concessions and compromises that are a part of the political process.
Focus on the Family, however, will never be appeased by an amendment.
"I do think they will fight us to the bitter end," Muny said. "They've shown that for every other gaming issue. They claim what they're fighting is an expansion of gaming, and they'll fight that until the very day they lose."
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