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“The Priest of Sin”: McGowan Studies Implications of Gambling

Nicknamed “the odds father” and the “priest of sin,” Rev. Richard McGowan, S.J., is Boston College’s resident gambling expert. But this does not mean he spends his weekends betting and wagering. Instead, it is quite the opposite. 

McGowan studies how gambling, as well as other “sin industries” such as tobacco and alcohol, impact the economy and whether or not the growth of these industries poses harmful societal implications. Over the course of his career, he has published several books exploring this topic, including The Gambling Debate and Government and the Transformation of the Gaming Industry.

“It’s not these theoretical arguments about tobacco and gambling that Father McGowan examines—it is how they impact everyday people,” said Jennifer Griffin, a professor at the Loyola University Chicago and former colleague of McGowan. “He understands the importance of regulation, not just reliance on voluntary behaviors from organizations.” 

In recent years, McGowan’s studies have focused on online sports gambling. He said the internet makes gambling easily accessible and increasingly addictive, which poses a large risk for younger fans of high school and college sports.

“There’s numerous articles about what happens with addiction, especially addiction among young males,” McGowan said. “So that issue I’m very concerned about and whether public policymakers are going to take that into consideration when they legalize sports gambling.”

But McGowan is not a gambling prohibitionist. He believes humans have an innate desire for risk—the adrenaline from pulling the lever on a slot machine makes a gambler’s heart pound. 

“Lots of people can enjoy gambling with no problems,” McGowan said. “Lots of people can drink with no problem. Public policymakers have to be concerned about how they’re going to deal with the addiction problem with any product that can cause addiction.”

So to reduce the chances of people forming gambling addictions, McGowan said those promoting gambling should advertise the risk of addiction more openly. McGowan added that the state should also inform the public of gambling’s risks, especially around occasions when sports gambling spikes, like the Super Bowl. 

“The state probably needs to put out something saying ‘If you have a gambling problem, here’s some of the things you can go get help,’ rather than just a quick 800 number at the end of a commercial,” McGowan said. “The state has to buy some advertising to do that.”

McGowan said he emphasizes the importance of practicing moderation when gambling not only because addiction can lead to economic troubles but also because addiction can negatively impact people’s spirituality and relationship with God. 

“If you drink too much alcohol, you know that there’s a problem here, and you might think about how you have to give up giving alcohol in order to use all the gifts God gives you,” McGowan said. “Well, the same thing with gambling and other things like that.”

The Society of Jesuits is known for helping those in need of guidance when afflicted with addiction, McGowan said. The 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous were also created by a Jesuit priest and reflect the Jesuit aim to help others, he said

The Jesuit aims of spirituality, education, and service are extremely important to McGowan, he said. To dedicate himself to these goals, he hosts daily masses, writes, and teaches economics, and he served as a board of directors member of the National Center for Responsible Gambling. 

McGowan is also a leading voice in the realm of business ethics, which Griffin said has pushed him to the forefront of economic discussions.

“He looks at conflict and controversial industries and is a clear, forthright thought leader in making ethical decisions in contested environments,” Griffin said. “He’s just a wonderful human being.” 

In addition to his many other duties, McGowan travels annually to El Salvador with a group of nine BC economics students. The purpose of this trip is to study the economics of the area, but McGowan said the trip ends up being spiritual as well.

“What I want students to see firsthand is the effect of microfinance,” McGowan said. “You see the poverty that’s there and you can see how these poor Salvadorians are very grateful for all the gifts that they have. The poor really are a lot more grateful about things and we take so many things for granted.”

Gerardo Diaz-Bazan, BC ’11, attended one of McGowan’s El Salvador trips during his time as an economics student. Diaz-Bazan was an international student, originally from El Salvador, so he said the trip was extremely transformative because it motivated him to return back to El Salvador after college. 

“Coming back and kind of applying this to my everyday life was really cool and amazing and kind of helped me to also become a lot more optimistic, a lot more focused on things that I wanted to do down here,” Diaz-Bazan said. “That played a huge role in me deciding to come back home after college.”

Although Diaz-Bazan does not take special interest in the industries of gambling, alcohol, or tobacco, he said he is still inspired by McGowan’s work in El Salvador and back in Boston. 

“I wanted to be—I don’t want to sound cliche—but, an agent of change here, and I just wanted to bring all that I learned back home,” Diaz-Bazan said. 

As a member of the Society of Jesuits, McGowan said he always strives to be an agent of change—his research aims to help people reach their highest potential, which he said frequently can be inhibited by addiction.

“Jesuit spirituality says, in the first week of the exercises, how loved you are by God,” McGowan said. “Lots of times we don’t use the gifts of God very well. You have something better that you should and could be doing. You can always be better than an addicted you.” 

February 26, 2023