Friday, February 27, 2009

The Blind Side

The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game
Michael Lewis (2007, W. W.Norton)

Michael Lewis is an economist whose reportorial bailiwick is the market forces in business (Liar’s Poker, 1989), and sports (Moneyball, 2004.) In The Blind Side, he has turned his attention to the question, ‘why is the left tackle worth more than other offensive linemen?’ (In the NFL, he may be paid more than running backs and receivers, occasionally more than the quarterback.)
The question is interesting because linemen used to consider themselves interchangeable; but all that changed with the beginning of Lawrence Taylor’s professional career. “In Taylor’s first season in the NFL, no official records were kept of quarterback sacks. In 1982, after Taylor had transformed the quarterback sack into the turning point of a football game, a new official NFL statistic was born.” Because Taylor and his successors want to attack the (righthanded) quarterback from his blind side, they come from the right side of the defensive set, and a special breed of left tackle has evolved to stop them. They are tall, wide, and quicker than people their size have any right to be.
The other side of Lewis’s book is the story of how all this helped Michael Oher get a pass out of Hurt Village, one of the poorest sections of Memphis, Tennessee. At fifteen, ‘Big Mike’ stood six feet five and weighed three hundred and forty-four pounds when he was fifteen. (It took a cattle scale to determine this: “On the light side, for a cow, delightfully beefy for a high school sophomore football player.”) That’s why, at twenty-one, he stands to make millions in the NFL after one more season of college. Oher plays left tackle for the University of Mississippi, which means he guards his quarterback’s back, and knocks down everybody who tries to get near it.
Oher’s childhood was about as neglected as you can possibly imagine; his mother spent whatever money she got on drugs, and the school and foster care systems pretty much forgot about him from ages eight to fifteen, time he spent drifting from household to household, and playing a lot of basketball.
Through a combination of luck and error, he was enrolled at Briarcrest Christian School, in rich, white Memphis. The school didn’t really see a way of overcoming his educational deficits so he could play football, but then a classmate’s parents took an interest. Sean Tuohy quietly made sure he had money to eat lunch, and his wife Leigh Anne took him shopping for clothes. “It struck others as perhaps a bit aggressively philanthropic; for Leigh Anne, clothing a child was just what you did if you had the resources.” One thing led to another, and the Tuohys brought Michael home to live with them and their two children; they found a tutor to help get him through school, and wound up making him part of their family.
By then, the coaches at Briarcrest had taken notice of Michael as a potential shot-putter, basketball player, and offensive lineman. His skills were raw but enormous. The more adept he got at flattening oncoming defenders, the more college coaches wanted to get to know him. “The wooing of Michael Oher was pure southern ritual: everyone knew, or thought they knew, everyone else’s darker motives, and what didn’t get said was far more important than what did.” Sean and Leigh Anne’s alma mater, Ole Miss, had the inside track, but Michael did not object to being courted, especially if private airplanes were involved.
Lewis is quietly scathing about the NCAA, which sent an investigator to see what all this signified. “They didn’t care how things were, only how they could be made to seem. A poor black football star inside the home of this rich white booster could be made to seem scandalous, and so here they were, bothering Michael.” He points out something Michael also spotted, that by way of protecting needy high school kids from exploitation, NCAA rules serve to keep them needy--as Sean Tuohy knew well from his own years at Ole Miss, though he survived to become a rich man.
Such ironies abound in Lewis’s story. In the first place, if Michael Oher had been six feet tall, you’d never have heard his name. His size was his good fortune, but his speed and agility were built in those middle school years when he was ditching school, working on his private plan to be the next Michael Jordan. The story is heartening and appalling at the same time: the good news is that a completely unlettered fifteen-year-old can go on to get a college education; the bad news is that this required the concentrated energies of one wealthy and generous man and two extremely determined women, and that there are tens of thousands more where he came from. “The inner city of Memphis alone teemed with kids whose athletic ability had market value. Very few ever reached their market. ...(Pity the kid inside Hurt Village who was born to play the piano, or manage people, or trade bonds.)” That one breaks my heart.

March 2008

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