Book of the Month Discussion: The Blind Side by Michael Lewis. [Sticky Post]

The story of Michael Oher’s intellectual development is also the story of his body type. Michael Oher is rare. Huge. A freak of nature. He’s also an anomaly of nurture and it has taken a village to raise him. The Blind Side by Michael Lewis chronicles Oher’s turbulent childhood, his unlikely ascent into professional football and the importance and evolution, largely monetary, of the left tackle position in the N.F.L. The position Oher would come to play in college for Old Miss and, currently, the Baltimore Ravens.

Using a mixture of stark language and deftly placed insight, Michael Lewis describes the evolution of the left tackle with the language and rationale of free market capitalism.  In the early nineties, the N.F.L.’s  free agency system meant that teams could “buy the players they needed,” but as would soon become obvious, not all positions were created equal. “The price of protecting quarterbacks was driven by the same forces that drove the price of other kinds of insurance,” Lewis writes. “It rose with the value of the asset insured, with the risk posed to that asset.”

The person charged with protecting that million-dollar golden boy needed strength, speed, agility and bodily bulk— a massive butt and legs as well as long arms—to give the quarterback a few extra seconds in the pocket was unlike the other offensive lineman. It’s rare for someone to have all these specific physical traits, and for the players who had them, the price was high. Very high.

Oher’s athletic potential catches the attention of  important folks at Briarcrest, a predominantly white, Christian private school in a very different part of Memphis from the one in which Memphis grew up. Initially, it’s the high school’s football coach, Hugh Freeze, who has big ambitions. But Oher also lands on the radar of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy white couple with children at Briarcrest who eventually become Oher’s adoptive parents. Reviewers aren’t colorblind, so there’s a tendency (as I did) to focus on the race of the wealthy Republican family taking in a poor black kid with the sad life story he’s not keen on sharing. Yet the book is peppered with the idea of a Christian imperative to help those who cannot help themselves; that is, socially conscious practice proctored by religious belief that is sometimes at odds with Republican talking points.

For example, Briarcrest principal Steve Simpson, having admonished himself for initially giving Oher “false hope” that the poor, nominally sheltered Oher could attend his school, conditionally admits Oher in order to “clear his conscience.” According to Simpson, “it was really unusual to see a kid with those kinds of deficits that wanted an education…a lot of kids with his background wouldn’t come within two hundred miles of this place.” It’s a line that makes me shudder. Simpson, I say to myself, a lot of kids with Oher’s background wouldn’t have the resources to come within two hundred miles of your school.

Sean Tuohy, a self-made man who is less motivated by religion the other people in the book, feels a certain kinship to the black students at Briarcrest. He knows what it is like to be the odd man out; in fact, Tuohy often relishes it. His affinity to Oher is akin to both his impulse to conquer and the intimate understanding of what it means to go without basic resources. Sean’s wife, Leigh Anne, is an impossibly willful woman and a far cry from the docile stereotype of the good Christian woman. She is a straight talker and also Oher’s emotional guide. (In another shudder moment she puts on a station that “plays black music” in an effort to get Oher to relax and open up to her.)

With the help of a private tutor — and teachers and coaches who figured out that Michael learns through observation — his GPA would rise from a 0.9 to a 1.54 in a school year. That wouldn’t amount D’s. The jump in Oher’s ability to process information is emblematic of a blog post written by Malcolm Gladwell called “Race and IQ ” which was a companion piece to an article he wrote in the NewYorker on the same subject. “There are studies showing that if a child of a very poor family, [is] adopted at birth into a wealthy family, [that child] will have a much higher IQ than his or her siblings, or his or her parents, who remain in poverty.” Oher’s eventual  academic achievement and intellectual growth — his I.Q. jumps from mild mental retardation to the normal range after a few years with the Tuohys — underline Gladwell’s point.

So here are some questions. When the motives appear (mostly) pure* but the approach is slightly prejudiced,  does it tarnish the outcome? And what of the value of his body? Had Freeze and Sean Tuohy not seen Oher’s athletic potential would they have taken such an interest in him? Is the miracle of this story that the universe thrusted Oher into the community of people who had a very particular use for his intimidating presence?

*Oher eventually settles on Ole Miss, a college that might not have had a serious chance at landing Oher were it not for the fact that it was the Tuohys’ alma mater. If one wanted to read it cynically, their adoption of Oher could be framed as a way for a prominent university booster to mold and deliver a blue chip recruit to his team.

  • Steve

    This movie looks shudder-worthy though. The previews?

    ugh and Sandra Bullock.

    I cant.

  • Steve

    On second thought Kathy Bates is in it. She is everything.

  • because you’re my ace, I’mma let this stand. yes, this movie will be ridiculous, which is part of why the smart, well-written book on which it’s based is getting the shout-out here.

    You should read it, Steve. It’s race, class and football, for chrissakes. If Michael Lewis somehow managed to include Kenya Moore, an argument could be made that it would be teh dopest book ever written.

  • blackink12

    I understand being wary of the movie because Sandra Bullock is involved. Really. Before I wrote this I tried to think of a film that I liked her in and couldn’t come up with anything. (The Net? A Time to Kill? One of the Speeds? Crash? Blech.)

    But I’m willing to give the movie a chance. I don’t have the same visceral rejection of the movie that lots of others have gotten from watching the trailer. I mean, Toure got all Cosby on folk about it the other weekend.

    As ridiculous as the movie might be, the story itself is ridiculous. It really is the stuff of Hollywood imagination – and that’s even before Oher becomes a first-round draft pick. And I’m just jealous Michael Lewis got it first, and I didn’t.

  • This is a great point. It’s one of those stories that begs to be made into a movie. The poor, gentle giant is taking in by a close, loving family and makes good on his potential? As problematic as the Hollywood treatment will probably be — I get the sense that the movie exaggerates the “pull of the old neighborhood” bit — Oher’s story is pretty damn incredible.

  • blackink12

    Lol at Kenya Moore. I’m hoping that she – or Zoe Saldana – is included in the sequel, when Oher retires early from the NFL to work as a pro-bono doctor at Myron Rolle’s free clinic in the Bahamas.

  • After seeing the trailer for this movie a few months ago when it was first released, I gotta keep it real: it made me incredibly uncomfortable. I have a serious problem with the pat-on-the-back superficiality of charity–of which the white savior extended charity to the lone darkie is the ultimate insult.

    Or maybe it’s not. See, I’m of two minds about this, because I think it’s wrong to deride charity, even if it barely makes a dent in material inequality. Still, the movie’s message seems to be one of “Damn, if there were just a few more nice whiteys willing to adopt the darkies we’d have no more achievement gap!” It’s fantasy world, and a paternalistic one at that.

    Now, this is all gut reaction to the movie trailer, not the book. And since I trust the opinions of my grape drink mafioso brethren, I’ve put the book on my Amazon wishlist. Sports journalism is easily some of the most powerful writing out there, but it far too often gets bastardized in movies like this one–remember the titans, glory road, etc.

    • I can totally understand the discomfort. I’m regularly disappointed with the Disneyfied movie treatments of what are generally important and interesting and complex sports stories – I absolutely hated “Remember the Titans.”

      Anyway, I’ll be heading to the movie theater this weekend expecting to be thoroughly let down. But that’s the fault of Hollywood and not Michael Lewis.

      That said, I’m not sure if the movie has a message at all. If it’s faithful to the material, “The Blind Side” is just a great – if almost implausible – story. In this particular instance, those whiteys did adopt a darkie and it helped to close the achievement gap. It sounds trite but it’s true.

      I don’t know that there’s some sort of prescription in there that involves thousands of well-off white families plucking ginormous black kids from ghettos and turning them into potential NFL stars. Maybe I’m missing the larger picture here. But I think it’s just a singular story that was turned into a movie because, like I said earlier, it seems made for the big screen.

      Cop that book, J.

  • Does anyone know if the economic value of the left tackle has trickled down to other offensive linemen? I guess if you have a lefty QB, then you would need a pretty good left tackle, but are guards/centers commanding higher salaries now?

    And i wonder if the advent of the premier LT has had any ramifications on the kind of packages defenses run. Does having an Orlando Pace on the end of your line get canceled out by more blitzes up away from the edges and up the middle?

  • quadmoniker

    I saw the movie and it’s as bad as you expect it to be. Michael Oher’s story is fascinating enough that it’s really hard to screw that up, and I’ll admit to shedding a tear or two at the guileless way he admits to everything he’s lacked in his life. What annoys me most is Sandra Bullock’s fearlessly sassy devoted mother character. The second most annoying thing is the little brother character. What annoys me is how liberal they were with the facts, when the facts are compelling enough. Leave it to Hollywood to screw up a story made for Hollywood. I have to say, now I’m obsessed with Michael Oher. I watched some of him playing football, and it’s dirty what he can do.