What’s in a Word? Plenty.

Sister Jean

We’re in the throes of the NCAA Basketball Tournament now, aka March Madness. And you don’t have to be a superfan to know who’s been the biggest star of the show right now: Sister Jean.

Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt is the team chaplain/unofficial scout/beloved mascot for the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers, an 11th seed that’s made an improbable run into tourney’s third round. The 98-year-old nun prays with the team before every game, asking for God’s blessings and that the refs will call a clean, fair game. Her words—”worship, work, win”—are painted on the wall of the team’s weight room. And she’s become an unlikely tourney-time sensation—a sweet old lady sitting in her wheelchair (she’s recovering from a broken hip), draped in a scarf knitted in Loyola-Chicago’s colors.

Everybody loves Sister Jean. Well, everybody except for Cody McClure, who hosts a sports radio show in Knoxville, Tenn.

After Sister Jean’s Ramblers knocked Tennessee out of the tournament, McClure lobbed the following tweet (which, naturally, we’ll censor): “F— Sister Jean -everyone.”

It takes a special outlook on life to direct an f-word to a 98-year-old nun, and some took exception to McClure’s tweet. David Haugh, a reporter for The Chicago Tribune, was one. He called up McClure and asked him, in essence, why he did it. Here’s what McClure said:

My comments about Sister Jean were meant simply as a joke, nothing more, nothing less. It was not an emotional response over a basketball game, nor was it meant to be a slight toward Catholicism or the elderly in general. The joke value came because of the fact we were dealing with a 98-year-old nun who is deservingly beloved by people for her outstanding service. Anything said that would oppose that would create a little shock value, right? It was meant to be comedic—cheap, maybe—but comedic.

“I don’t see how you can be offended by language,’’ McClure added. “I always think back to what (comedian) George Carlin said: Words are just words. I don’t know why everyone gets so bent out of shape.’’

But words are not just words, and McClure obviously knows it. If his language wasn’t offensive, there’d be no joke. Certain words have a certain power, and anyone who works with them for a living—as McClure does—knows that.

Sure, there’s no inherent linguistic offensiveness in each of those four letters: It’s not as if those letters, strung together in that particular way, sprung whole from a fallen Garden of Eden. That word is offensive because society has deemed it so. But here’s the thing: Society has deemed it so. Moreover, folks like McClure who use it for shock value are glad that society has deemed it so. Otherwise, they’d have to get more creative to shock. And really, who has time for that?

Listen, I don’t know McClure. Maybe he’s a great guy who, when he’s not on Twitter, spends his time building houses for the homeless. But it seems as though his obscene tweet epitomizes some of the worst parts of our frazzled 21st-century society, and how it manifests on social media.

We live in an age filled with noise where sometimes our highest goal is to be noticed. Studies suggest that children don’t want to be astronauts or firemen these days as much as they want to be famous. Social media gives us a conduit for that fame. But to cut through the noise, we have to stand out—and on Twitter, we’re given just 280 characters to do it. It’s easier to shock in 280 characters than it is to say something of substance. Shock cuts through the noise. And a single f-word, directed at a 98-year-old nun, packs more punch than a carefully crafted, pithy missive.

There’s a certain irony that Sister Jean—a viral social media darling—seems to embody the very opposite qualities that our current culture and its social media toys seems to value. Her life as a nun speaks more eloquently than a cascade of curses. Her affection for her team, and her unapologetic, joyful fandom, perhaps give voice to simple pleasures we may feel we’re at risk of losing. She didn’t ask to be a star. Maybe she didn’t even want to be one. But she became one because those around her saw something good in her. Something worthy. Something important that goes beyond words.

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

Have something to say? Leave a comment.

seraph_unsung 12 months ago

The New York Times did a very touching article about her after this blog post was written.  For everyone lamenting how the one guy treated her poorly, we can look at a group of people treating her admirably.
seraph_unsung More than 1 year ago
What bothers me about this is less the "word," though that's not great, but more the idea that this is supposed to be interpreted as a joke.  To say nothing of how rude it is, I've heard much worse things said about people in complete seriousness (some of the comments I saw in the wake of Billy Graham's passing, for example, were even more vindictive than just a simple pretentious obscenity), so why should I assume someone who says something like this must be joking?
PolishBear More than 1 year ago
Nice interview with her on NPR this morning.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
It's too much to block and people would find a way to get around it
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Or just post the censored versions, like PluggedIn does in their reviews. They people say it would still mean the same thing, it would just have some asterisks or dashes instead of letters
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
At the risk of sounding callous, I say, "So what?" Sure, it was in poor taste and impolite. But at the same time, there wasn't really any intended malice behind the statement, either. Just a (rather poorly thought) attempt and some good-natured, yet terrible executed, ribbing. You guys are honestly making a bit of mountain out of a molehill here, barely even a molehill, at that. Or maybe I'm just jaded, the world may never know.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Sorry bobed, but a lot has changed in 50 years
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
You're right, it's not a molehill. It's barely a speck of dirt on the grand scale of internet toxicity I've seen. Sure, it wasn't cool, but this barely registers as mild sauce on the scale of mean things that have been said to others on twitter.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Posted by First Comment Guy

Shame on McClure! Bad enough that he used that kind of language; it's even worse that he directed it at an elderly woman!

Then again, he is part of the modern age, so I can't say that I'm surprised.