Pipeline Book Reviews: The Blind Side and Cross-X

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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.

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13 Responses to Pipeline Book Reviews: The Blind Side and Cross-X

  1. pipelineblog says:

    I should also mention Pipeline Person BrentS loaned both of these books to me. Thanks, man.

  2. Dave says:

    I’ll have to get Brent to loan me Cross-X.
    I didn’t know Marcus that well, but Brian Dial was in my lab at Emory prior to his freshman year in high school. That’s right, he attended a debate camp before he was a freshman in high school (Two in fact, as he went from Emory to the debate camp at UMKC). It would be interesting to see what happened because I departed debate shortly after that.

  3. I think you’d really find it to be an interesting read, Dave, especially because of your connection to UMKC and to Kansas City as a whole.

    Growing up in Topeka I thought of Kansas City as being the Shawnee Mission schools-that’s all we saw on our debate trips. So naturally I assumed KC was full of rich, snobby white kids who confused the peace sign with the Mercedes logo, who all went to well-maintained schools. To me, inner-city KC was just a place you drove through on I-70 to get to Royals Stadium. I thought I went to a bad high school, but all that time I had no idea that one of the worst school systems in the country was a mere 60 miles away.

  4. kelly says:

    I loved Cross-X and have been loaning my copy out as often as I can. Such intense reactions all the way around. Also interesting to see the evolution the author goes through. On more than one occassion I thought about ways to get back involved with that community. That book also changed my perceptions of Linda Collier in very positive way.

    The overwhelming impression I got after reading the book is that debate is a way more powerful force than I ever gave it credit for while in the activity, and an outsiders opinion is a great lens to see it through.

    Not to mention excellent writing.

  5. brent says:

    i enjoyed both books a great deal; i guess that’s somewhat obvious since i pushed both books off on doug.

    if you have any background in competitive debate, you should read Cross-X. my comments here are directed at those people who have read the book though.

    1) Joe Miller is an excellent writer, and one of the reasons the book works is because his perspective evolves over time. i don’t think the book woudl have worked at all if Miller would have written the book with the opinions he holds at the end of the book. i also don’t think anyone from debate could have written the book nearly as well because they would have tried to write from a privileged perspective.

    2) the book demonstrates that debaters are always at their best, and debate is always the most valuable when debaters and coaches a) read the original research themselves, and b) make their own decisions about communicating the argument to their audience. Miller’s own experience with the critique of education demonstrate how powerful an experience it is to create the argument.

    kelly, you mention the “intense reactions all the way around”. is there anyone out there that has read the book that feels it isn’t a good book or that it isn’t a fair representation? i respect jenny heidt a great deal, and i feel that Miller probably simplifies her position for his convenience and to her detriment. the same process probably benefits Linda Collier.

  6. pipelineblog says:

    I spoke with JHoe about the book. He had a negative reaction to the book based on the criticism of JHeit, but he also conceded that was out of loyalty to her and not the fact that he had read the book, which he hadn’t. So there you go.

    The last part with Linda was bizarre, that she essentially abandoned the males on the squad to focus on the women. I took that with a grain of salt because I could see that being either 1) generically true but not as absolute as Miller portrayed it, or 2) completely true.

    Knowing the power dynamics in the activity I can understand how a reasonable person, and I have always understood Linda to be such a person, could come to the conclusion that that’s a necessary course of action, but it seems myopic to me. A more equal distribution of power should be a shared responsibility and goal, and it seems to me the males in her potential sphere should have a role to play in changing the structure as well.

    But, I’m far removed from that activity, and so thankful for that. 12 years was quite enough for me. But, perhaps in another five years or so, as Linus approaches high school, I might reconsider my involvement at a local level.

  7. Dave says:

    If Emma is at all interested in debate in high school, I suppose I have to get involved as Riffer is the coach at the school in our district… I know that is like 11 years away, but some folks hang on a long time.

    Not knowing the portrayal of Linda in the book I can’t comment on what that is about. I do know that it would take a lot to make me believe her a reasonable person. There was a common thread among all the debaters when I was at UMKC that Linda didn’t really care about the male debaters (I was told this early on by the females on the squad). It was a running joke with us that she was “coaching” all the women (it was a joke because most of us didn’t see it as help). So I guess it’s no revelation to me that she would take that approach.

    I’ll have to read it and check it out.

    BTW — I showed up the Heart of America tournament a couple of years ago to check things out. It was strange. The activity really doesn’t have a good historical look at things. While there was a time when I could show up at a tournament and pretty much know everyone there, I only recognized about a dozen folks and the round I judged was a joke. Getting involved takes the time for others to get to know you again.

  8. Matt says:

    I haven’t read the book yet, but intend to. After hearing about the portrayal of Jenny in the book, I took the radical step of asking her about it. She said many things. I would say the most persuasive would probably have to be Joe Miller sending her an email admitting he fabricated a great deal of the writing about her, and that he was sorry. She keeps the email on hand in case the book causes problems for her with her school’s administration.

    In fact, and this is pure assumption, I’d say she probably keeps a great deal of her correspondence with Joe Miller. Based on her comments, and in total ignorance of the rest of the book’s content, I’d say Joe took his investigative reporting gig a bit too seriously at times.

  9. pipelineblog says:

    That’s interesting stuff, Matt. I was already reading with a grain of salt, but it looks like I’ll have to add a few more.

    To me, this is an illustration of how very few things are ever black and white; it’s all shades of gray, but gray doesn’t necessarily play well in a narrative where the author has clearly become a part of the story, and identifies so strongly with the protagonists. Thus, antagonists are needed. When I think of the former Jenny Alme, “antagonist” isn’t a word that quickly comes to mind.

  10. Steve says:

    Thanks for the recommendation, Doug. I hadn’t heard of the book. I’ve had an on-and-off relationship with writing a book about my debate experiences for about ten years. I want to write it as a way of recording my memories of a remarkable few years of my life and also as a way of trying to describe to other people all the extremes of the activity in learning and behavior. But every time I start to make some progress writing, I inevitably become faced with the truth that if I am going to be fair with my recollections I would inevitably 1) piss off too many people I happen to hold dear friendships with, and 2) probably provide way too much negative information about the underside of the activity that could doom it in some places that may be looking to do that. Either that, or write it as a “based on truth” piece of total fiction, which would totally defeat the original purpose of writing it in the first place. A very frustrating place to find oneself.

  11. Steve says:

    Wow. I’m now halfway through the book I immediately found in the library. It’s a pretty extraordinary and fascinating book. Thanks so much for the recommendation. It raises a lot of really provoking issues to me, not the least of which being how much I’m not sure I’d fit in the debate world of today.

  12. Dan Carson says:

    If I had a dime for each time I came to pipelineblog.wordpress.com.. Amazing writing!

  13. Hah I am literally the only comment to this great read.

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