16 May 2011

The Blind Side, by Michael Lewis

My boyfriend read this recently and really enjoyed it, and said that it was less about Michael Oher than it was about football itself, and the increased interest in the left tackle position. This was enough to get me interested, so I picked it up this afternoon. It's a quick read, and a pleasant one. It is indeed very much about the changes in football over the past 30 years, but the Michael Oher story is a major aspect too, and despite my skepticism (largely based on having seen trailers for the movie), I ended up finding it kind of fascinating as well. Not just the story itself, but also the complications that arise from telling it.

The thing is, it's kind of a weird story. I mean, here's this rich white family who takes in a poor black kid and basically invests tons of money into fixing his life - and succeeds at it. Now, in some ways, that's a very inspiring tale about a good deed. In other ways, it's a kind of astonishing account of just how much money can buy. I mean sure, hard work and a certain body type are necessary components, but money is a major, major factor here. Then there's the fact that you could also argue that their investment in the kid payed off in a pretty major way - and there are critics of the book who claim that the pay-off was the primary motive all along. Added to all of that is the fact that the kid is being groomed for life as an athlete, which anyone who's watched Hoop Dreams (and you really should - I think it's an incredible movie) is bound to have mixed feelings about. Lewis is very careful, I think, in the way he tells this tale. He really doesn't push any kind of angle on it, and I think it's a crucial part of what makes the book work. He registers various aspects of the tale, notes the hypocrisies of some of the key players, and is generally careful to avoid sentimentalizing it. But he gives you just enough to invite you to reflect on the questions this kind of story raises, and an afterword emphasizes the point by detailing some of the controversies in the book's reception.

Then there's the football side. Here Lewis is clearly on much more comfortable ground. I haven't read his other books, but you can imagine exactly what they're like - it's basically intelligent journalism. History and analysis written in an eminently readable and easy to understand format. You don't have to know much about football to appreciate what he's saying or why it's interesting - he lays it all out for you. It's not the most elegant writing you've ever encountered, but it's full of very interesting information that is presented clearly and effectively. There's a bit in the early part of the book where his editor must have dozed off, because certain key phrases get repeated way too many times (especially the Japanese automotive factory metaphor), but overall, it's pretty solid, if somewhat formulaic.

And Lewis does have some really interesting things to say about football. What struck me the most, perhaps, was the idea of the emotional versus intellectual play. And the claim that effective strategy could basically overcome any weaknesses of the players - if you plan your game correctly, it doesn't matter if your quarterback is weak, for instance. The integral aspect of the left tackle ascendancy, it seems, is not just a new strategy of play, but the fact of its coinciding with a new way of paying players - basically, the market value of the left tackle shot up as people started to realize their importance, which resulted in everyone realizing their importance. This, incidentally, again makes you think about how much pro sports are really just about money. But it also led me to wonder if five or ten years from now, a new strategy will emerge that will once again change all of this.

The aspect of the book that seemed to resonate with my boyfriend was the idea of a person being, in a sense, fated to do a certain thing. Michael Oher, by virtue of his physique and ability, seemed in some ways "born" to be a left tackle. My reading of the book was actually very different. To begin with, there's the fact that Oher himself actually wanted to be a basketball player. Then there's the fact that the same skill set seems naturally adapted to throwing shot put - but that doesn't pay as much. To my mind, there were a lot of external factors that led Oher to the position he now occupies. At the same time, the book puts a lot of emphasis on the idea of a particular build the position requires, and the fact that it's a rare one, but that pro football has basically devised a fairly effective system for sussing out the people who can do it.

A somewhat intriguing but largely unexplored aspect of the book was a comparison between football and baseball. Lewis, author of Moneyball, probably has a lot of interesting things to say on the topic, and unfortunately, he doesn't get to develop it. He has a few footnotes on that mention, for instance, the huge difference in the kinds of stats and quantitative analysis done in baseball as opposed to football, but doesn't say much more. I'd love to read an essay of his on the topic.

Overall, an interesting book, definitely worth reading.

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