Sister Jean Is Great, But . . .

I know, I know, it’s a great story. It really is. Loyola-Chicago, a little-known basketball school from Illinois, has reached the Final Four, and their team cheerleader, a sweet, 98-year-old nun known as Sister Jean, is a media sensation. Even me, your resident contrarian, can’t pooh-pooh this story. Or can I? (Hold my beer.)

Now, look, I haven’t paid much attention to March Madness since my team, the Cincinnati Bearcats, took their early (and customary) heartbreaking exit in the second round. But I’ve caught at least parts of most Loyola-Chicago games, and I honestly don’t know a single player on their team by name. Part of that’s my fault, for sure. It’s easy to look up the numbers and names online, and I’m sure there are good, basketball-centered articles out there at places like The Athletic and The Ringer, and perhaps buried somewhere deep in the unnavigable pages of ESPN. But I’m a casual college basketball fan, so I consume most of my college basketball content in snippets from mainstream sources, almost by accident—on SportsCenter, for instance, I just watched an entire segment on Sister Jean that seemed to almost delight in ignoring the players.

I understand the appeal, I suppose. Good story. The non-sports fan is probably going to like it more than an X’s and O’s breakdown of Loyola-Chicago’s  offense . . . but how many non-sports fans are watching SportsCenter at midnight? And how many stories about Sister Jean does the non-sports diehard need? Not this many, I’m sure. The media outlets would likely counter that these types of stories just get more views or hits, but each one of them replaces something that could have been written about strategy, players, or coaches, and maybe those pieces would do well too if given the light of day. There are only so many people on the internet looking for stories about basketball; the ones that are are going to gravitate toward what’s available.

Of course, we’ve seen this before. It seems like college hoops stories are filled with stuff that tries its best to ignore the players as much as possible. Each time a new Cinderella emerges, there’s a new mascot, a new hot shot coach—something, anything—to redirect attention away from the ones who deserve it most, the players living out the most thrilling times of their basketball lives. Again, I understand it to a degree. The players, in college basketball, are often only around for a year or two—at least some of them—and, at most, for four years. It can be hard to build a narrative around a roster that’s always in flux, whereas in the NFL, say, a QB-TE combo could be around for a decade. It’s harder to latch on to the players at the college level.

But it’s not that hard. Even me, the sorta casual basketball fan, I want to read about the players. Last week, at The Athletic (full disclosure: I somehow contribute to The Athletic), I read a great piece about Michigan’s Jordan Poole, the guy who hit the game-winning shot against Houston, breaking my once in-tact bracket. There’s another story there about how some of the players got to Loyola-Chicago, too, which I could surely read if I really wanted to. The internet is vast, and there are good stories and fluff all over the place—you can probably find what you’re looking for if you poke around.

I guess my complaint is the general coverage, from the mainstream places, the kind of stuff that’s almost a fabric of what we consume, like the stuff on SportsCenter, what shows up on Yahoo’s page when I’m trying to get to my fantasy baseball team, and the actual game broadcasts themselves. The players at the college level are already, in some ways, pawns in the NCAA’s money-making conglomerate. The least we could do is shine the spotlight on them when they do good things, and avoid letting the low-hanging human interest story grow from fun sidebar to all-encompassing monolith.

Look, I feel like a jerk for even broaching the subject, but this has nothing to do with Sister Jean. It’s just frustration with the way sports are still covered at many places, and the way the media can so quickly and decisively shove their selected narrative at us. Maybe I’ll watch enough basketball over the next few days to learn more about the kids who’ve made Loyola-Chicago’s run a reality, but I’m sure I won’t do that without a double dose of Sister Jean coverage to boot.

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