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Michael Oher is an immense human being. At the age of sixteen, he had a 20-inch neck, 50-inch waist, and a 58-inch chest. Larger measurements, that is, than every single member of the Washington Redskins. This fact alone meant that his final years in high school, Oher was the focus of attention of college coaches across America – grown men taking detours of hundreds of miles to watch him practice, in the hope of persuading him to play for their team. Had these coaches the power to design a prototypical left tackle, Oher’s six-foot-five, 330-pound frame would have been pretty close to their model. And yet the fact that he was even still at high school was, in itself, nothing short of a miracle.
The focal point of Michael Lewis’s The Blind Side is the story of Oher’s transition from a teenager so neglected by society that the Memphis school board can’t really account for his academic record to an eighteen-year-old college recruit with the potential for earning millions when he hits the NFL draft (which he will do this April). Though Oher is the main narrative thrust, the book is a wide-ranging examination of the culture of American football, its tactical development, and most importantly of all, its uneasy relationship with the US educational system.
Oher is one of sixteen siblings born in the poorest (black) parts of Memphis. The determination of a friend’s father to get his own son into one of the elite (white) Christian schools quite literally changes the course of Michael’s life. Though he has no education to speak of, the Tuohy family take him under their wing, eventually adding him to their will. Oher does not excel at school; after sixteen years where formal education has made little impact on his life, this is scarcely surprising. Yet in some remarkably moving passages, Lewis shows the dedication of Oher’s new teachers as they deal with a type of child they have never met before, and transmits their joy when they realise that despite his taciturn nature, he has actually been absorbing the material he’s been taught in class.
Success in the classroom is, ultimately, vital for Michael’s future. For although his millions will come through his physical strength, and his ability to protect the quarterback (American football’s most valuable position), the development of a professional sportsmen is inextricably intertwined with the education system. The condition of his being accepted by his high school was greater academic achievement; unless his grade point average reaches a certain level, he won’t be allowed to go to college – no matter how many coaches are desperate for him to play.
The subject of the relationship between high school sports and educational achievement has been covered before. Buzz Bissinger’s ‘Friday Night Lights’, which has since been the inspiration for a movie and a TV series, followed a high school team in Texas for a season. Far from the saccharine, wholesome version of schooldays that we are accustomed to, Bissinger painted an unhappy and controversial portrait – of a white community interested in black children only so far as they could help compete for the state championship; a school with $5,000 for the English department but $70,000 for travel to away matches; allegations of pain-killers being used illegally to get injured teenagers playing as soon as possible. Such was the controversy the book caused that Bissinger, who had spent a year in the town, didn’t return until 20 years later.
The Blind Side has a more uplifting tale at its heart. Yet this does not stop it from being an unsettling story. The Tuohys are accused of taking Michael into their lives solely to ensure that he can play for their alma mater by college football’s regulatory body. This body exists to try and ensure that (nominal) academic standards are upheld by college athletes, but Oher and the Tuohys are subject to an invasive investigation, despite the fact Oher would be nowhere near college were it not for the Tuohys. Oher’s coaches do not cover themselves in glory, either; the high school head coach is clearly angling for a job at the college level, and will try and pressure Michael into choosing the college most likely to further his own prospects.
Most unsettling of all, though, is Lewis’s stark portrayal of the alternative life he might have led. Going into Hurt Village, Memphis, Lewis tells the story of a broken community ravaged by drug gangs and grinding poverty. He also retells the story of ‘Big Zach’, who in the 1990s had attracted the same interest from college scouts that Michael Oher was. Yet Big Zach didn’t have an adoptive family to push him to work hard at high school; he dropped out before he could make it to college, and now looks back on what might have been.
It is in this wider picture that The Blind Side truly excels. Oher is the sort of kid who you can’t help but root for. It is a pleasure to read of his transformation in so many facets of his life, and you put the book down hoping that he is as successful in the NFL as his coaches hope for. But there are deeper questions at the heart of this book that are not so easily resolved. It is clear that Oher has a remarkable capacity for absorbing knowledge and copying it – that is the secret of his success academically and athletically. Were it not for a freakish set of circumstances, however, he would still be on the wrong side of the tracks in Memphis, let down by the indifference of the education system. Moreover, Oher has been redeemed because he is a remarkable physical specimen. How many children have the same capacity to learn but are lost forever because they lack the potential to be an NFL superstar is a sobering thought. When even high school football can be the path to riches for all kinds of coaches and scouts, one feels for the children who miss out as a result of these priorities – both the children who are prevented from being paid for their athletic skill, and those whose educational development is considered a lower priority than sporting silverware.
Edition shown: WW Norton and Co. 2007. Illustrated paperback. 320pp. ISBN: 978-0393330472.