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Keith Strudler: Sister Jean Heads To San Antonio

The most recognizable figure in this weekend’s NCAA men’s Final Four may not be a player, especially since star laden Duke lost last week, or a coach, since all but Villanova’s Jay Wright are fairly anonymous. The most famous personality left in the field may be a nun. I’m speaking, of course, of Sister Jean, the 98-year-old team chaplain for Loyola University. 

Loyola is the single Cinderella left of the Final Four teams, an 11 seed that shot its way to San Antonio where it will play traditional Big 10 power Michigan, a school that does not travel with team clergy but is still favored to win. Sister Jean has become instantly famous along with her team’s unlikely run, one of the many peculiar stories that helps fill airtime during the month long, 67-game event.

Sister Jean, who sits on the team bench in a wheelchair thanks to a recent hip injury, has counseled the Loyola men’s team since 1994. She’s one of many team chaplains across the landscape of college basketball, clergy that offer their team spiritual advice, counsel, and it seems in the case of Sister Jean, scouting reports. Sister Jean will be one of two clergy on the bench at this year’s Final Four.

Loyola is not the only team at this year‘s Final Four with divine assistance on the bench. Catholic powerhouse Villanova, a number one seed in the tournament, will also have a chaplain courtside. So, if both teams advance to the final, God may have to pick a side.

The role of the team chaplain is somewhat amorphous, as likely is the role of any clergy. They seem an integral part of the team, although it’s unlikely to see anyone calling plays from the sidelines. They do occupy a rarefied space in the conscious of team players, who view team chaplains as part psychologist, part surrogate parent, and a nice place to turn compared to hard driving coaches. Sister Jean goes so far as to send each player and individual note after every game affirming their success and making sure defeat wasn’t a prophesy. It’s like having your own hype man.

It’s hard to say whether these spiritual figures help the team’s success. While not all religious universities travel with clergy, there were 11 religious institutions in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Five of them won in the first round. So speaking very unscientifically, the Lord went just under 500 in the first two days. Of course, there are two religious schools in the Final Four, and we could have an all Catholic championship game. Call it a holy war if you will, although I’ve been told the Lord would never take sides.

The religious presence in major college sports has been largely Catholic – although other Christian sects have had their moments. Baylor, a Baptist University, has a director of sports ministry. BYU has made the NCAA Tournament a whopping 29 times but has never gone past the Elite Eight. And they’ve lost in the first round nine of their last 11 appearances. There are no Jewish university in Division I athletics, as Yeshiva competes in Division III. Although for the record, the Maccabees men’s basketball team did win the Skyline Athletic Conference this year – but lost in the first round of the D3 National Tournament.

I’m sure there’s a statistician that could determine whether religious affiliation is somehow correlated with athletic success. That’s what regression analysis is for. And probably also the success rate with a chaplain on the bench, or even which chaplains have a higher winning percentage. Like anything in college sports, religion can be commodified.

There is something inherently wholesome about having a team chaplain, particularly in the seemingly unwholesome landscape of big time college sports. Team chaplains aren’t in it for the money, and despite the current infatuation with Sister Jean, I imagine that fame is fleeting at best. Perhaps that’s why we’ve fallen for her so much. Amidst a landscape of unpaid professionals, she and other team chaplains are truly amateurs.

I can’t say whether Sister Jean has helped Loyola on their magical run, one that hopefully gets them past Michigan to the finals – and that’s just a personal thing. Of course, I’m guessing she’d suggest that is in the hands of a higher authority.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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