Two weeks ago I spent a long weekend on a series of plane flights. On the recommendation of a friend I picked up The Blind Side by Michael Lewis just before I left. I had planned to read the book at some point, but I had too many other unread things in front of me. But, the book got a strong recommendation, so I went ahead. High expectations usually lead to disappointment for me, but this was not the case with The Blind Side. In fact, I find myself thinking about the book almost every day.
The book has two subjects: Michael Oher and left tackles, which come together very quickly. Michael Oher is a poor black kid from a Memphis housing project. Though”Big Mike” towers over nearly everyone around him, he’s shy an introverted. His mother is on crack, his father is dead. The foster care system doesn’t know where he is, and gave up looking. He’s one of many siblings living only on street smarts. As fate would have it, Oher was taken by a friend to Briarcrest Christian School on the other side of Memphis. Though his education was woefully lacking, the school took a chance on him. That’s where Oher meets Sean Tuohy.
Tuohy is a former Ole Miss basketball player who was able to sympathize with this young man, because he too grew up poor. He offered Oher some help, but it was his wife, Leigh Anne, who could get to know Michael better than anyone. A petite blonde who was a sorority girl cheerleader at Ole Miss, and the daughter of a racist father, makes him a part of the family. She defends him, pushes him, and loves him as her child. Oher is still at a huge disadvantage, but the Tuohys do all they can to give him the things most Americans take for granted.
In the early eighties, Lawrence Taylor was terrorizing NFL quarterbacks, and his play revolutionized the way the outside linebacker was used. Taylor’s favorite path to his prey was from behind. With the right-handed quarterback facing the right side of the field, Taylor would come from the left, where the quarterback couldn’t see him: the blind side. Even if Taylor didn’t make it to his destination, the fear of what might be there when Taylor was on the field was enough to cause quarterbacks to make poor decisions. The NFL is a copy-cat league, and soon others were emulating LT. As the Bill Parcell’s defense took over the league, Bill Walsh was spreading his offensive vision. Because Walsh needed the pass more than the run, pass rushers like Taylor could destroy them. Protecting the quarterback from the blind side rush was second in importance only to the quarterback himself. Correspondingly, the man in charge of having his QB’s back has become the second most highly paid football player in the league.
Michael Oher was born to play left tackle in the NFL, as the Tuohys soon find out. The boy who kept out of trouble by thinking he’d be the next Michael Jordan was being recruited by every big college program in the country. Though his grades weren’t good—how could they be?— and it takes some real knowledge of NCAA loopholes to get him into college, he ends up at the Tuohy’s alma mater, Ole Miss.
Whether Michael Oher will be all that he is projected to be has yet to be decided, but he’s at least on the right path. This is amazing considering his upbringing. The writing is up to Lewis’s usual standards, as he chronicles Oher’s journey towards the NFL. The story itself makes the book worth reading, but that’s not what’s keeping me awake at night.
Michael Oher lost a cruel lottery in life, and this kid isn’t alone. There are other kids out there who don’t get adopted by family willing to make him one of their own. Many don’t have the athletic gifts either. Even Michael’s own natural athletic talent would not have been able to get him out of his own situation. There was no one there to make him go to school, protect him from the bad, or comfort him when he failed. Michael Oher is a remarkable fellow, but without the Tuohys he’s probably not on a football field today. Sean and Leigh Anne realize that there are others like Michael out there, and say they want to do it again. This is what haunts me. Could I do that? There are plenty of excuses not to. I’ve got my own family to think of. I’m not as financially secure as they are. I don’t have the understanding that Sean had of a disadvantaged youth. But still I wonder, and this is what haunts me.
Aside from my own personal explorations, the book heightened my hatred of the NCAA. It’s time to cut this phony bologna that big-time NCAA athletics are about “student athletes.” That’s beyond bullshit, and the organization ought to be ashamed of itself. To read of the NCAA investigation of the Tuohys was maddening. They were investigated for guiding Michael to their alma mater. Because they were his guardians they could shower him with the comforts of life that their other children enjoyed—the most important being a loving family. Yet, the NCAA is concerned that this might be a recruiting violation. Soon there might be other rich folks scooping poor kids out of the ghetto to get their schools to a BCS bowl. SO WHAT?!!!! Is that really so bad? Shouldn’t the NCAA be encouraging this type of behavior, even though Lewis makes it pretty clear that recruiting was not on Sean Tuohy’s mind when he invited him into his home? Nah, that’s just their lot in life.
Why do we tolerate the scholar-athlete charade of the NCAA? Let the Michael Ohers of the world play football. Screw grades, screw class, and screw scholarships—pay these kids the money they are generating for these schools. It’s an outrage that this system operates as it does. I have hope that a few brave governors will one day join together and throw the NCAA out of their schools, pay their athletes…and maybe even have a football playoff. Americans wants to watch gifted kids play football, so let these kids do it and get paid for doing it. Sports economists have preached monopsony exploitation angle for years, but it just doesn’t sell. Michael Lewis humanizes the damage done by the NCAA. It might be the book’s single greatest attribute.
So, if you can’t tell, I liked the book. I suggest picking it up. Although, like me, you’ll probably end up watching a lot more Ole Miss football games with your eyes on the left side of the offensive line.