The Blind Side

by Michael Lewis

Cover image

Publisher: W.W. Norton & Company
Copyright: 2006, 2007
Printing: 2007
ISBN: 0-393-33047-8
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 339

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One of the foundations of Michael Lewis's mastery of long-form journalism is that he is an incredible storyteller. Given even dry topics of interest (baseball statistics, bond trading, football offensive lines), he has an uncanny knack for finding memorable characters around which to tell a story, and uses their involvement as the backbone of a clear explanation of complex processes or situations. That's why one of the surprises of The Blind Side is that Lewis loses control of his material.

The story that Lewis wants to tell is the development of the left tackle position in professional football. The left tackle is the player on the outside of the offensive line on the blind side of a right-handed quarterback. The advent of the west-coast offense with its emphasis on passing plays, and the corresponding development of aggressive pass rushers in the era of Lawrence Taylor, transformed that position from just another member of the most anonymous group of people in football into one of the most highly-paid positions on the field. The left tackle is the person most responsible for stopping a pass rush.

Lewis does tell that story in The Blind Side, but every time he diverts into it, the reader is left tapping their foot in frustration and wishing he'd hurry up. That's because the other topic of this book, the biographical through line, is Michael Oher, and Michael Oher the person is so much more interesting than anything Lewis has to say about football that the football parts seem wasted.

I'm not sure how many people will manage to read this book without having the details of Oher's story spoiled for them first, particularly given there's also a movie based on this book, but I managed it and loved the unfolding of the story. I'm therefore going to leave out most of the specifics to avoid spoilers. But the short version is that Oher was a sometimes-homeless, neglected black kid with incredible physical skills but almost no interaction with the public school system who ended up being adopted as a teenager by a wealthy white family. They help him clear the hurdles required to play NCAA football.

That's just the bare outline. It's an amazing story, and Lewis tells it very well. I had a hard time putting this book down, and rushed through the background chapters on the evolution of football to get back to more details about Oher. But, as much as Lewis tries to make this book a biography of Oher himself, it's really not. As Lewis discloses at the end of this edition, he's a personal friend of Sean Tuohy, Oher's adoptive father. Oher was largely unwilling to talk to Lewis about his life before he met the Tuohys. Therefore, this is, more accurately, the story of Oher as seen from the Tuohys' perspective, which is not quite the same thing.

There are so many pitfalls here that it's amazing Lewis navigates them as well as he does, and even he stumbles. There are stereotypes and pieces of American mythology lurking everywhere beneath this story, trying to make the story snap to them like a guiding grid: the wealthy white family welcoming in the poor black kid, the kid with amazing physical talent who is very bad at school, the black kid with an addict mother, the white Christian school who takes him in, the colleges who try to recruit him... you cannot live in this country without strong feelings about all of these things. Nestled next to this story like landmines are numerous lies that white Americans tell themselves to convince themselves that they're not racist. I could feel the mythological drag on this story trying to make Oher something he's not, trying to make him fit into a particular social frame. It's one of the reasons why I doubt I'll ever see the movie: it's difficult to imagine a movie managing to avoid that undertow.

To give Lewis full credit, he fights to keep this story free of its mythology every step of the way, and you can see the struggle in the book. He succeeds best at showing that Oher is not at all dumb, but instead is an extremely intelligent teenager who was essentially never given an opportunity to learn. He also provides a lot of grounding and nuance to Oher's relationship with the Tuohys. They're still in something of a savior role, but it seems partly deserved. And, most importantly, he's very open about the fact that Oher largely didn't talk to anyone about his past, including Lewis, so except for a chapter near the end laying out the information Lewis was able to gather, it's mostly conjecture on the part of the Tuohys and others.

But there is so much buried here, so many fault lines of US society, so many sharp corners of racism and religion and class, that Oher's story just does not fit into Lewis's evolution-of-football narrative. It spills out of the book, surfaces deep social questions that Lewis barely touches on, and leaves so many open questions (including Oher's own voice). One major example: Briarcrest Christian School, the high school Oher played for and the place where he was discovered as a potential NCAA and later professional football player, is a private high school academy formed in 1973 after the desegregation of Memphis schools as a refuge for the children of white supremacists. Lewis describes Oher's treatment as one of only three black children at the school as positive; I can believe that because three kids out of a thousand plays into one kind of narrative. Later, Lewis mentions in passing that the school balked at the applications of other black kids once Oher became famous, and one has to wonder how that might change the narrative for the school's administration and parents. There's a story there that's left untold, and might not be as positive as Oher's reception.

Don't get me wrong: these aren't truly flaws in Lewis's book, because he's not even trying to tell that story. He's telling the story of one exceptional young man who reached college football through a truly unusual set of circumstances, and he tells that story well. I just can't help but look for systems in individual stories, to look for institutions that should have been there for Oher and weren't. Once I started looking, the signs of systemic failures sit largely unremarked beneath nearly every chapter. Maybe this is a Rorschach test of political analysis: do you see an exceptional person rising out of adversity through human charity, or a failure of society that has to be patched around by uncertain chance that, for most people, will fail without ever leaving a trace?

The other somewhat idiosyncratic reaction I had to this book, and the reason why I've put off reading it for so long, is that I now find it hard to read about football. While I've always been happy to watch nearly any sport, football used to be my primary sport as a fan, the one I watched every Sunday and most Saturdays. As a kid, I even kept my own game statistics from time to time, and hand-maintained team regular season standings. But somewhere along the way, the violence, the head injuries, and the basic incompatibility between the game as currently played and any concept of safety for the players got to me. I was never someone who loved the mud and the blood and the aggression; I grew up on the west coast offense and the passing game and watched football for the tactics. But football is an incredibly violent sport, and the story of quarterback sacks, rushing linebackers, and the offensive line is one of the centers of that violence. Lewis's story opens with Joe Theismann's leg injury in 1985, which is one of the most horrific injuries in the history of sport. I guess I don't have it in me any more to get excited about a sport that does things like that to its players.

I think The Blind Side is a bit of a mess as a book, but I'm still very glad that I read it. Oher's story, particularly through Lewis's story-telling lens, is incredibly compelling. I'm just also wary of it, because it sits slightly askew on some of the deepest fault lines in American society, and it's so easy for everyone involved to read things into the story that are coming from that underlying mythology rather than from Oher himself. I think Lewis fought through this whole book to not do that; I think he mostly but did not entirely succeed.

The Tuohys have their own related book (In a Heartbeat), written with Sally Jenkins, that's about their philosophy of giving and charity and looks very, very Christian in a way that makes me doubtful that it will shine a meaningful light on any of the social fault lines that Lewis left unaddressed. But Oher, with Don Yaeger, has written his own autobiography, I Beat the Odds, and that I will read. Given how invested I got in his story through Lewis, I feel an obligation to hear it on his own terms, rather than filtered through well-meaning white people.

I will cautiously recommend this book because it's an amazing story and Lewis tries very hard to do it justice. But I think this is a book worth reading carefully, thinking about who we're hearing from and who we aren't, and looking critically at the things Lewis leaves unsaid.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2018-11-28

Last modified and spun 2018-12-15