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Hey NCAA ... free Sister Jean!

Dan Wetzel
·Columnist
·5 min read
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The Loyola Ramblers are back in the NCAA tournament, three years after their incredible underdog run to the Final Four.

That means Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, their most prominent fan and a wheelchair-bound, now-101-year-old nun, is back as well. Or she should be.

As of now, Sister Jean isn’t headed to Loyola Chicago’s first-round game against Georgia Tech scheduled for 4 p.m. Friday at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Despite being fully vaccinated and, she said, having tested negative for COVID-19 some 30 times, restrictions on the number of people at games and the size of travel parties have left perhaps the sport’s most famous fan on the outside looking in.

“I have not lost hope in going,” she told the Chicago Tribune. “I want to go so badly.”

Simply put: Free Sister Jean.

As long as a woman who has devoted her lengthy life to the service of others — and cheering on a low-major college basketball team — wants to be there to watch them in person, she should be allowed to be there to watch them in person.

The NCAA needs a vice president of common sense because it’s too often lacking in Indianapolis. Instead it loves rules, regulations, protocols and so on. This is an organization after all that, in the past, has monitored whether cream cheese was applied to a bagel.

Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, left, greets the Loyola-Chicago basketball team as they walk off the court after their win over Miami in a first-round game at the NCAA college basketball tournament in Dallas, Thursday, March 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Tony Gutierrez)
Sister Jean Dolores Schmidt, left, was front and center during Loyola's improbable run to the Final Four in 2018. (AP)

Much of this is understandable. Especially this year. The NCAA is under enormous stress trying to run this tournament during a pandemic. It is a massive challenge and requires all sorts of logistical concerns, including limiting the number of people around the teams. The organization means well. The staff is working incredibly hard. They are trying to make this work for everyone, not just one fan.

That said, there has to be a way. There are rules ... and then there are rules. If NCAA president Mark Emmert were smart, he would offer to drive to Chicago himself and pick her up at the assisted living facility downtown where she resides, help her into his car and then personally escort her to Indy.

Sister Jean doesn’t need to be with the Loyola team — she hasn’t attended a game this year but via phone delivered a pep talk before for the Missouri Valley title game. Like many isolated Americans, she found her connection to her favorite team actually grow during quarantine, a lifeline to both the outside world and better days.

Now she just wants to watch them play in person. With her vaccinations, there shouldn’t be much of a safety concern for her, but even then, anyone who was born in 1919 and is still going is pretty much an expert on avoiding health problems.

Hinkle Fieldhouse is a good-sized building; it can seat 9,100 fans. A limited number will be allowed in. Emmert could pull right up to the front door, get her out and lead her to some cleared-out space reserved just for Sister Jean — or, if you want to be fair, any other 101-year-old nun who wants to watch the game. Then Emmert could sit next to her, personally monitoring the situation.

If the Ramblers win, get her a hotel room in Indy and do it again Sunday, when a possible matchup with Illinois awaits. And then again and again as long as needed.

CBS could turn it into a halftime segment, an actual feel-good, buddy-film-of-sorts moment for a famously passionless, if well-paid, bureaucrat.

This isn’t even just about Sister Jean. It’s marketing. The woman captured part of America’s heart three years ago.

She epitomized this bizarro sport that has 350 teams at the Division I level, each with their own fan base, traditions and dreams. You don’t become a Loyola superfan because of the glory — prior to the magical 2018 run, the Ramblers hadn’t even played in March Madness since 1985.

You do it because you love what college basketball is about. The players. The students. The pageantry. The game. Her pregame on-court prayer session has been a staple of the program (she is also a regular at other Loyola sporting events).

In 2018, Sister Jean generated enormous media attention for the school she still works part-time for as a counsellor and for the sport itself. Reporters flocked to her, players celebrated with her and fans of all teams sought autographs and selfies.

Her return would be the kind of thing that gets into non-sports media … Good Morning America, CNN, People Magazine, whatever. She appeals to the casual, even unlikely, fan.

The tournament is an entertainment product always seeking additional viewers. If doing the right thing for a nun also contributes to that, all the better.

This is simple. Or it should be.

“They said there’s restriction,” Sister Jean said. “You can’t run down on the court. You can’t talk to the young men. I said, ‘I’m not going to run down on the court and I’m not going to cause any disturbance.' I said, ‘I won’t do things I’m not supposed to.’ ”

If a nun promises to behave, and Emmert could be her personal monitor, then what’s the issue?

Mark, go pick her up. Free Sister Jean. And then be thankful you get to watch a game with her. It’s what this tournament is all about.

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