I just finished The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis. Lewis is the guy who wrote the much-discussed Moneyball, about the way some baseball teams with lower budgets are able to compete by capitalizing on talents that are undervalued on the open market. Although there was plenty for statheads and baseball people to chew on in Moneyball, the real strength of the book was Lewis’s ability to make a dry study of market trends come alive with colorful personalities. I remember much more about the personal stories in Moneyball than I do the stats analysis, which is not to say that the stats analysis wasn’t provacative.
The Blind Side works the same way, but ends up being a substantially more powerful story on a human level. Ostensibly, the book is about the evolution of the left tackle position in football, how a position that was once considered to be among the least important on a team suddenly became, on average, the second-highest paid player on NFL teams, right behind the quarterback. Why did this happen? Mostly because of Bill Walsh and Lawrence Taylor. Bill Walsh brought a level of offensive efficiency to the quarterback position that revolutionized the game and made protection of the quarterback paramount, and Lawrence Taylor brought a level of speed and size that terrorized the quarterback position from the right side of the defense.
Who blocks the pass rusher from the right side of the defense? The left tackle. And as Darwinian logic encouraged faster pass rushers to attack a right-handed quarterback’s blind side, those same forces dictated that bigger, faster human beings should play left tackle. Lewis explains this evolution in an entertaining and concise way; his description of the famous Joe Theisman play alone is worth reading the book.
Before you know it, however, the Blind Side ends up becoming a look at the sad and remarkable life of Michael Oher, a man-child who nearly fell through the cracks of society, which is somewhat difficult to do when you go 6-foot-6 inches and 350 pounds. And as it turns out, it’s precisely because Michael Oher is a huge freak of nature in stature and physical ability that he doesn’t fall through the cracks.
Or is it? You’ll have to read the book to understand the full import of that question, to wonder where the line between charity and opportunity is drawn, and to ponder the motives of all the people involved in Michael Oher’s story. Regardless, it’s a remarkable tale and a great read.
It reminded me of another great book I recently finished, called Cross-X, by Joe Miller. Like Blind Side, Cross-X gives us a harrowing look at an inner-city school system, and the lifelines that some lucky students are able to find that allow them to transcend an environment that isn’t geared to student success in any way that most Pipeline People would recognize. Cross-X is about a debate team at an inner-city Kansas City high school. Of course, like most great books it’s about much more than that.
Cross-X, more than anything else I’ve read or seen, captures what it was like to be a debater–the long road trips, the absurd discussions, the combined resentments of and fascinations with kids from other schools and cultures that aren’t like yours, the flirting, the coaches who give everything they have, and the kids who think they know everything, even if nobody else understands that. And yes, even though he only devotes a couple pages to the subjects, he nails the unfortunate male-dominated sexual hierarchy and rampant drug use of the college debate circuit. I saw plenty of both firsthand.
There were parts of the book that were odd for me to read, as it deals extensively with a number of people I know. Some of those people aren’t portrayed in a positive light, but it’s important to know that Miller is approaching academic debate as an outsider. It’s hard to explain why that matters, but it does. That said, I can see where he’s coming from on many of the issues–high-level academic debate is one of the more insular communities you’ll find, and sometimes people don’t react well to change. Debate is like fashion; what’s passe or even offensive today will become mainstream in five years. But I think Miller’s book transcends those issues, and will come to be seen as one of the best, and a rare, view of a community that is difficult to chronicle in any meaningful way.
If you debated enough to still think of yourself as a “former debater”, read this book. If you didn’t debate, don’t let that throw you. It’s a great read that will get you thinking about our schools, about class issues, about race, and yes, about the most peculiar and valuable activity that is high-level academic debate, which is not what you think it is.