You know Lewis as the author of Moneyball. “The Blind Side” is ostensibly the story of Michael Oher – currently a senior left tackle at Ole Miss, then a senior left tackle in HS – but it’s really a sociological examination of both football and American society. That’s not surprising; Moneyball was social science (economics) at its core,* and Blind Side seems like it could have started out with a similar economic take. In fact, the scope of Blind Side is so broad it’s impossible to know where this story came from.
Oher was a poor black kid, adopted by rich white parents. He played football for the first time in his junior year of high school, and by the following summer he was one of the most sought after recruits in the country. A year later, as a true freshman, he was a starting left tackle in the SEC. His story is about race relations, the education system, economic disparity, and the plight of the poor.
Yet Lewis never trivializes Oher at the expense of these perhaps more intriguing topics. He always keeps Oher front and center – he is very sensitive to the fact that Oher is only a kid – and the societal considerations on the periphery. He realizes they are evocative in and of themselves. Because of this, the story never loses a sense of authenticity and it’s what makes the book so compelling.
Lewis is able to extract the most interesting details from each area without descending into clinical discussions of the potentially dry topics. He relies heavily on anecdotes (no wonder he has a Gladwell endorsement on the back) and is a talented storyteller. He isn’t preachy. He maintains an even tone and thus seamlessly weaves between the more weighty topics and football history, football strategy, the business of college recruiting, and the awkward role of the NCAA.
When deeper into pure football talk Lewis takes what could be esoteric trivia and presents it as relevant and engrossing and thus is able to engage both the layman and the avid fan.
He jumps between contextual information and Michael’s story. He crafts the setting as if everything that had happened up until now – Bill Walsh, Lawrence Taylor, free agency, the financial and cultural growth of football, in a phrase, “the evolution of the game,”* as well as “a series of social accidents” – happened so that Michael Oher, a poor, uneducated kid from the ghetto with a bleak future, could succeed.
Ultimately this is the most salient point in the book. Oher went from “one of the least valued 15 year olds on the planet to among the most highly prized 18 year olds.” Lewis references a study of Memphis inner city athletes: 5 of 6 public school kids who could play sports at the college level fail to qualify academically. At one point Oher blithely declares that “if all the guys who could play got a chance to play, there would have to be two NFLs because one wouldn’t be enough.” Within his afterword, Lewis writes, “Micahel Oher might have been born to play left tackle in the NFL, but if he had remained in the environment into which he was born no one would have ever known about his talent. I find this remarkable.”
Here it is on Amazon.
*While many think of Moneyball as a Billy Beane bio or simply an endorsement of sabermetrics, its clearly stated premise was to investigate the abilities of a small market team to compete in baseballs non-revenue sharing landscape. FJM covers this nicely in their glossary.
*This was the subtitle of the book when it was first published as a hardcover. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t retained for the paperback.
Two other tangential thoughts:
1. The business of college recruiting: 21 DI schools each spent more than $1-million on their recruiting budgets last year.
2. This book reminded me a lot of “The Wire,” my favorite TV show, the way it laid bare much of the dysfunction of US society, without lapsing into the conventional indignation, all the while maintaining a captivating narrative that reinforced the authenticity.