Nature AND Nuture

1101b5.jpgAny serious sports fan simply must be familiar with Michael Lewis, the author of two of the most influential contemporary sports books, Moneyball and The Blind Side. Turning to football in The Blind Side, Lewis writes about the evolution of one particular position and juxtaposes it with an equally unlikely story of a poor black kid adopted by a rich, white, evangelical Christian family. The result is another sports masterpiece full of moral/ethical questions, social criticism, and implicit attacks on one of the most powerful sports organizations in the country.

The Blind Side discusses the evolution of the left tackle position on the offensive line. In response to ferociously fast defensive linemen and linebackers, NFL scouts and coaches began to look for equally sizeable and speedy offensive linemen to protect the quarterback’s blind side (given that most NFL quarterbacks are right-handed) from the likes of Lawrence Taylor. This new necessity would require a person with a freakish combination of size (a particular kind mind you), strength, speed, and agility (built like a Mack truck that handles like a sports car). Needless to say, this odd commodity would be rewarded handsomely (receiving more lucrative contracts than star quarterbacks, runningbacks, or wide receivers) and never make the highlight reel on Sportscenter, unless he failed.

Lewis uses this aspect of football history to explain an unknown, poor black kid’s rise to national fame. Michael Oher is one of thirteen children born to a crack-addict mother and was virtually homeless until the age of fifteen. A friend of the family whisked him away from the ghettoes of west Memphis to the white-washed mansions of east Memphis, particularly to Briarcrest Christian School in hopes that they would provide him with a Christian education in return for his athletic abilities. Given his combination of size, speed, and agility, Lewis concludes, as did Michael’s coaches, that he was born to play left tackle. Yet Oher’s domestic troubles continued until the Tuohy family adopted him. Suddenly, Oher, who never had his own bed, had access to a private jet. Moreover, he finally had the love and support from a family that not only spurned him to athletic greatness but to academic success as well.

Even from this brief synopsis, questions abound as they did for the families surrounding the Tuohys. Why is this white family adopting this poor, black kid? Despite his amassed wealth, Sean Tuohy saw a kindred spirit in Michael as he too came from poor conditions and worked hard for everything he had. Sean was also a star athlete, though not with Michael’s physical gifts.

Another issue in this story: how did Michael live in obscurity to Memphis social services and the public school system for so long? Why was he whisked from school to school and passed on from grade to grade when he was clearly making no academic progress? Lewis’ depiction of Michael’s upbringing reads like a description of a third world country, not the richest country in the world. Why does such a chasm exist between the haves and have nots within only a few miles in this southern city?

There can be no doubt that the Tuohys saved Michael’s life and, with his determination, helped give him life. Yet when Michael enrolled at Ole Miss to play football, the NCAA smelled a rat. They conducted extensive interviews with family and friends to see whether or not the Tuohys had taken Michael in simply to funnel him off to Ole Miss, their alma mater. While the NCAA has to fulfill certain obligations, this intense investigation and its implications, made the Tuohys’ extreme act of Christian charity suspect. Yet questions can turn on the NCAA as well. Would they rather Michael have stayed on the streets and died of hunger or gang violence? What if Michael’s physical talents were suited for a less popular sport, would the NCAA have been as concerned?

Potential complications abounded, but the Tuohys’ financial security cut some off at the pass. They did not need whatever money Michael would eventually earn in the NFL. So what if the Tuohys had been in a lower tax bracket? What about families with less financial wealth but with just as much generosity? Can they not help disadvantaged kids with athletic abilities without being accused of gold-digging? Lewis concludes his book with a wonderful observation.

Much more than financial stability, Michael lacked the support system of family and friends to believe in him and encourage him to pursue his dreams. More than clothes and shelter, the Tuohys gave him this. Lewis compares Michael to another promising young black athlete who never made it out of the ghetto. Even with a full scholarship to play football at Florida State University and personal visits from head coach Bobby Bowden, who assured him that, barring injury, he was certain to play in the NFL, this young man’s family and friends constantly told him that he would never make it. Far from being optimistic (or even opportunistic), their pessimism ultimately ended not only a promising career, but his life as well.

Lewis’ remarkable book, available now in paperback, is a wonderful examination of the dual necessity of nature and nuture for both individual and societal success.