It should surprise almost nobody that I served as manager and statistician for my high school’s football team. Well, if you know me now, I’m reasonably sized, but I had a late puberty. At the beginning of tenth grade I was only 5′ 2″. As MTV Hits plays videos from my high school and college days – Cotton Eye Joe, Spice Girls, House of Pain – I’m reminded of those days. I’m also reminded of high school football through my Borders Book this fall, The Blind Side by Michael Lewis. Earlier this fall, I had reread Liar’s Poker, and a couple years ago I had purchased and read Moneyball. His latest work had received excellent reviews, so I wanted to read it eventually. I wasn’t that enthusiastic, though, so I read it in sessions over the fall at the bookstore. Borders is like my crack house. Every time I enter there, money disappears like an addiction. So I don’t go that often. I also try to browse something light. Over a few visits, where I generally purchase things, I also learn about something else. This fall, it was football.
Effectively, there are two parts to this book. The smaller portion is a description of line play from the 1980s to today. As defensive players got better, particularly Lawrence Taylor, offensive lines had to adapt and improve. This led to better athletes (though steroids also likely helped), new strategies, and more money. Linemen used to make much less than the glamour positions of running back and cornerback. Now, at least in pro circles if not the public, the gap is zero. Left tackle, the most important position on the line, is second only to quarterback in salary. Lewis presents a well researched, interesting history. Yet it’s just football, a topic of much less importance than it gets. That’s nice, but I wouldn’t read a book for football strategy anymore.
As the videos move to the “00’s Hits”, let’s also move to the other part of the book, an example of the new left tackle. That young man is Michael Oher, now through three seasons at the University of Mississippi, and barring injury, soon a high pick in the NFL Draft. Astonishingly, seven years ago he had never played football and was effectively homeless on the streets of Memphis. His parents, the school system, and the community had failed him. Somehow an elite Christian school accepts a black kid, even though he doesn’t immediately play sports. Mr. Oher gets noticed by a rich white family because he’s gigantic, sure, but also because he hung around the gym watching basketball practice because it was warm.
The individual story is great, but the football part is not that exciting. Overall, this book gets an average score, 2 out of 5. Now, I want to consider the question that the adoptive family, the Tuohys, did something wrong because their adopted son went to their college. Mr. Oher’s life was set for failure. Now, he has the chance at millions of dollars in football. Yet, even if somehow he breaks his legs tomorrow, he’s better off. Instead of a having an IQ of 80, he’s achieved at least high school level literacy. He has a home, clothing, credentials, and a chance. Let’s take the most cynical view, and say the Tuohys helped him ONLY to develop a football prospect for their alma mater. Is Michael Oher worse off because of their decision?
To answer this question, I’m reminded of one of the best episodes of a TV show. In The Left Wing, the first season Christmas episode had a great story. (It won an Emmy, deservedly.) One of the staffers donated a coat, which went to a homeless man who died. The staffer’s card was still in one pocket, so he got a phone call. He used the resources of the White House to get the homeless man, a Korean War veteran, an honor guard. In doing so, he exceeds his bounds, and the President gently chastises him by asking “if we start pulling strings like this, you don’t think every homeless veteran would come out of the woodworks?”
BCS football is a cesspool of sewage and rottenness. What would happen if instead of showering coaches with multi-million dollar contracts, renovating locker rooms for multi-millions of dollars, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars for hotels before HOME games, and building multi-million dollar all-weather practice facilities, the old white men who run the system searched out promising talent? Then got them appropriate clothing, a safe environment, and personal tutors?
I can only hope, sir.