By Jeanne Hess, author of Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games
As a cradle Catholic, collegiate volleyball coach, and author of Sportuality: Finding Joy in the Games, I feel called to talk about the NCAA tournament and the publicity that Sister Jean has brought to the very deserving Loyola Ramblers. Full disclosure, I’m a University of Michigan alumna who played four seasons of volleyball for the Wolverines, and I currently serve on the Letterwinners M Club board of directors. I’m not sure that my views are also those of the club, but I would like to think so.
I’ve watched with great enthusiasm, defined in Sportuality as “god-within,” the post-game hugs of Sister Jean with the team and coaches, her interviews where she speaks so well of the team and their competition this season. Another definition in Sportuality is that of competition, which literally means “to work with.” Every time I’ve heard Sister Jean speak, it is from the true heart of competition, with an understanding that what we’re doing here is molding, shaping, and growing young people to compete, that is, to work with, their fellow humans in this life.
I write from the southernmost point of the United States, Key West, Florida, where on Saturday morning thousands marched the length of Duval Street in support of common sense gun laws – young, old, and all ages in-between. We joined so many millions throughout the country asking for the same thing. Young people organized and led the march, and I couldn’t have been more inspired and hopeful for the future. Here in Key West, the motto is “One Human Family,” an awareness-building campaign around the fact that all humans are interconnected: “like fingers on a hand, we appear separate; but each of us are in fact an integral part of each other.” More on this in a few paragraphs, there is a point to it!
Then on Saturday evening, we sat in Jack Flats on Duval watching the men’s NCAA Elite Eight, Kansas State versus Loyola, next to folks from Chicago, one who was a women’s soccer alumna. She said she knew Sister Jean personally as an RA and her Dean of Students when she was a student at Loyola. Yes, the stories about her are true, she said. She IS as compassionate, understanding, wise, vibrant, and fun as the woman we see on TV. Sister Jean is the window to the soul of the Loyola Ramblers, as their chaplain and number one fan. Her faith is strong; her resolve great at 98 years young. Without a doubt, she is an inspiration and a positive face to the NCAA sport that has taken it on the chin in recent months.
I’m a career volleyball coach in NCAA Division III women’s volleyball, far from the fame and fortune of NCAA Division I men’s basketball, but I work with the same age of student-athletes, the same issues of growth and maturity, and the same hopes and fears about life moving forward. As an alumna of the University of Michigan, I’ve been fortunate to know about Coach John Beilein up close from those who know him best. We know about him from last years’ experience in the plane crash en-route to the Big 10 tournament, his faith in the process of seasons unfolding, and his unflappable nature as a sideline coach, and his nurturing persona during post game reflections in the locker room after victory or defeat. Did I mention that’s he’s also a faithful Catholic? I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that between Coach Beilein and Sister Jean, we’re in for a miraculous Final Four matchup. Is it coincidence that it happens on the night before Easter in the Christian calendar?
It is not right to compare Sister Jean to Coach John; to say “us versus them,” or decide what god is on whose side. It’s always been interesting to me when players, coaches, and fans remark that “god was on our side” as if God has favorites in this game of life, and truly spends universal thought on the outcome of a contest. True competition is not “Us versus Them,” rather it is “Us AND Them,” working toward something greater than ourselves. When Loyola and Michigan meet on Saturday, we will see two programs who have at their heart, the growth and nourishment of young people who will have a voice in the future of sport, of education, and of the integrity of this country in the decades to come.
It is not coincidence that they are playing on the most holy evening in the Christian calendar. They will be playing for a victory, yes, but more so, I believe they are playing for the soul of sport, where play is the order of the world, and integrity wins. I am hopeful for the outcome and for the stories that will flow freely from this match-up. Just as I am hopeful that the young people of Key West and throughout the world will raise their voices for the good of our One Human Family. Throughout this tournament and all tournaments, may the game win, and may we all find the joy in them.