Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review: The Blind Side

I will confess to not being a big fan of American Football; I am fond of quoting George Will: Football combines the two worst things about America: it is violence punctuated by committee meetings. I am, however, a fan of Michael Lewis. His first book, Liar's Poker was funny, well-written, and had great insight to the Wall Street scene. His next book, Moneyball, made baseball, a game I often compare with watching paint dry, actually made the statistics interesting, and gave me an understanding of why my friends who were baseball geeks were obsessed with the game, even though I still found myself unable to watch it. His more book, The New New Thing, I didn't find nearly as interesting, mostly because I work in technology, and his worship of Jim Clark seemed premature. (I did manage to sneak onto Jim Clark's sailboat, The Hyperion when I was in New Zealand in 2000. That's a story for another time)

The Blind Side is two stories at once. First, there's the hero's journey, complete with danger, wise mentors, a rescue, and obstacles to overcome. The hero's journey is about Michael Oher, an inner-city kid who somehow makes it into Briarcrest High School, a religious private school and there he flounders, being viewed by all his teachers as a hopeless cause, until a white family literally finds him on the street, adopts him, and pushes the school to recognize his talent as a left tackle in football, a sport he is born to play.

The other story is the story about football strategy. Everybody knows who the quarterback is on the team, but the other players were not highly paid until relatively recently, where a shift in football rules and strategy encouraged a playing style that reduced the time a quarterback had to think, and made the position defending his blind side a highly lucrative one. The statistics and data Lewis marshals to defend this point of view is highly convincing, and one believes him when he says that the lack of a Sabermetrics equivalent in Football really made it evolve a lot more slowly than it would otherwise have.

The book reads fast and easily, and the story is fascinating. I do question the premise (held by many, it seems), that the way out of the ghetto for black people is sports and for their talent to be recognized. In the book, for instance, Michael Oher's GPA was the gating factor for his financial future --- the NFL is barred for players who do not attend college. If the premise of this book is to be believed, the best thing one could do for inner-city kids is to remove this impediment and allow anyone to play. Michael Oher's adopted father, Sean, spent quite a bit of time manipulating the system to get Michael's GPA acceptable in school --- he gets Michael declared to have a learning disability, and then uses BYU's distance learning program to toss out a bunch of Fs in Michael's report card.

The truth is, however, that even were all the barriers to inner-city talent in sports removed, the number of folks the market can handle with such high salaries is limited --- there are only so many sports stars that can be created. The true path out of the ghetto is more education, where economic productivity can be increased indefinitely, but I guess that is beyond the scope of this book.

Even though I still have no idea what the line up of an American Football team looks like after reading this book, I found it incredibly fascinating and could not help but keep turning page after page. Highly recommended. Michael Lewis is back on form.

[Addendum: Michael Lewis gave a talk at Google about this book. You can now view it on Youtube: Michael Lewis at Google]
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