When Bill Raftery yells “Onions” in March, it has a double meaning for me. Yes, there’s the ballsy, clutch late-game heroics.
But also: Cue the crying. Give me tears from players, spectators, parents, refs … whoever.
Apparently, some fans need a refresher in that March Madness tradition.
On Thursday, as the clock ran out on the Utah State-Missouri game, the TNT broadcast cut to a tearful Aggies cheerleader.
The lens lingered on the pretty blonde — her chin quivering as she stifled an incoming sob.
It was a quintessential college basketball moment, but some viewers were annoyed that the network was focusing on the sidelines — or, perhaps, exploiting the young woman, who has since been identified as Ashlyn Whimpey.
“Bruh why does TNT keep showing the crying Utah State cheerleader?? Chill,” one fan complained on Twitter.
“Seriously, TNT? Highlighting a crying cheerleader?” another quipped.
Oh, the humanity. Literally, the humanity. That’s the point. This is March.
Whimpey’s tears are an essential part of tournament coverage: She is an avatar for the raw emotion that March Madness delivers — encapsulating in a few seconds of footage what makes this tournament so damn special.
In recent years, college basketball has been subject to numerous shifting norms, from the rule allowing players to profit from their own “Name, Image and Likeness,” to the transfer portal and the one-and-done.
Players don’t have to stick around anywhere for four years anymore, and the musical-chairs rosters have fundamentally changed the game. And then there’s the NCAA, which rakes in over a billion annually.
But when the Big Dance arrives, small moments like this remind us that underneath the big money circus of college sports, there’s still a real beating heart.
Most of the ballplayers aren’t moving to the next level. That buzzer-beater ended not only their careers, but also that of the cheerleaders, the band members and the senior who hyped the student section all season long.
Before Whimpey, there was Villanova’s Roxanne Chalifoux, who became the face of March Madness in 2015.
Dubbed the “crying piccolo girl,” she tearfully played on as her No. 1 Wildcats were bounced by NC State.
Fans were so enchanted with her that she ended up on Fallon and got her own bobblehead.
In 2017, it was the ‘crying Northwestern kid’ whose on-camera meltdown became that year’s meme.
This is what sports — especially the NCAA tournament — do: like a treacly Hallmark card, they make us feel stuff.
It’s not just about the guys playing.
In March, the tournament showcases, on a national stage, the entire ecosystem that exists around the hardwood. There’s the benchwarmer whose artful towel waving is as captivating as the action on the court, the creepy mascot (yes, I’m looking at you, Friar Dom), the kid in the band with the ridiculous hat, the praying parents in the crowd and, yes, sometimes the crying cheerleader.
In 2020, the tournament went on an unthinkable hiatus due to Covid.
In 2021, it returned in a pared-down, nearly crowd-free fashion. While it was good to have b-ball back, there was a palpable void.
These authentic, unscripted moments are an antidote to our obsessively filtered online presentations of our lives, where everything has been made to seem flawless.
They go viral because there are no touch-ups, Photoshop or mugging for the camera. Just humans captured in the wild, letting themselves feel human feelings.
But don’t shed any tears for the crying Whimpey, who dates Utah State guard Sean Bairstow.
Now, she cash in and get an NIL deal to turn her very public tears into some scratch.
Kleenex, are you watching?