With the NFL draft over, the media is rife with hope, anger and tales, tales of players and their paths to the riches of the NFL fairy land. Let's think about one such tale.
The archetype is clear. Fairy godmother touches the life of a downtrodden dispossessed child. No pumpkin, but a truck carries the transformed player to the big dance. Instead of hidden royalty, (excuse the mixed metaphor) we get an ugly duckling who grows in the swan of an NFL star. In a modern update, the fairy god mother proves that armed with her Christianity and friendship with the DA and packing her NRA pistol, she can stare down the nightmare black monsters who threaten her protégé. Welcome to the world of The Blind Side.
Every year immense wealthy public and private universities garner huge publicity and serious money during the intercollegiate football season. The power and magnificence of this sport of organization, intellectual complexity and violence depends upon young minority males recruited from often deeply disorganized and violence-saturated backgrounds. The sport taps into the anger and violence of these young men. It depends upon “controlled rage” for its execution and appeal. One of the most wrenching paradoxes citadels of higher learning face is the incongruity, some believe incompatibility, between the type of young men recruited to play football and the commitment of the university to academic and educational pursuits.
The incongruity cuts across several fault lines. First, many of the students who enter the university for football reasons are no-where near academically prepared to achieve in college classrooms. Second, many of the students have no clue how to comport themselves socially within the classroom or on campuses informed by middle class norms and expectations. Third, many of the minority students feel isolated and conspicuous on campuses that feel largely white, female, Asian.
The Blind Side won an Oscar for Sandra Bullock and turned into a sleeper hit garnering over 200 million dollars. It narrates one story that was woven through Michael Lewis' brilliant book on the intersection of pro football and college recruiting and class and race, The Blind Side.
Quick and dirty: the movie chronicles how Michael Ohr, a physically immense and marginalized young black male in Memphis, finds his way through charity, luck and sport talent to an all white Christian Academy in Memphis. He struggles academically as he bounces from bumming beds to sleeping in laundromats and boiler rooms. A successful white family (the father runs many franchises in Memphis) ends up providing Michael Ohr a place to sleep, eat and eventually live. The family adopts him, buys him a car and hires a tutor to help him overcome his woeful academic background in order to win a scholarship to play college. The husband and wife are avid Old Miss boosters, and in the end Ohr commits to Old Miss. But not before the whole business is investigated by an archetypical NCAA Nazi lawyer (played by a black female) and accuses the boosters of intentionally adopting Michael and providing all these benefits for the purposes of recruiting the offensive tackle to play at Old Miss, their alma mater. The NCAA lawyer points out this could set a precedent for boosters all over the country to adopt young poor minority players to groom them to play for their alma maters. In passing the movie notes that Ohr’s high school coach takes a job at Mississippi after Ohr commits.
Several aspects of the movie seek to reassure us that the fault lines of race/poverty and college sports’ exploitation of them are not things we need to worry about. First, the couple played by Sandra Bullock and Toby prove to be surprisingly caring and instinctive in their response to Michael, and they take him on before they know of his immense talent; they just see his size and his isolation and poverty. Second, in a strong motif, they movie portrays Michael as “Ferdinand the bull” a gentle giant who possess an immense desire to protect family and people.
The theme is exploited in one of the movie’s best scenes where Sandra Bullock overrides Ohr’s beleaguered coach in typical coach speak screams at Michael to motivate him to block hard. She swaggers out onto the field, pulls Michael aside and convinces Michael to think of the team as family and have their back. The violence and anger that so many young minority football players wrestle with and makes them so dangerous to themselves and others and so effective on the field, is tamed by a children’s metaphor. Third, in a teeth grinding scene with her well coifed friends, Bullock tells them she is not changing his life, “he is changing mine” to reassure us that this story is about love and mutual transformation. Fourth, in one of its few glimpses into the moral complexity of the situation, after being humiliated and hectored by the NCAA lawyer (not at all unusual for NCAA lawyers) Ohr asks his adopted mother, “WHY?”
Bullock has no easy answers and in the end even has to ask Michael if he even enjoys playing football, for it was both his size and football potential and his isolation and poverty that attracted them to him. If he had been one more poor disenfranchised black kid who was 5’ 9” and skinny, this story would not have happened.
Other well off families often find themselves accidental custodians of young dispossessed black male athletes who find their way to their homes. Often the young men arrive “recruited” to the private schools for their athletic ability but without any social or economic resources to survive in a different class and racial environment. More often than not the relationship begins when the young men come over for dinner with a teammate, and it often evolves from compassion, need, concern, guilt friendship and protection into helping and taking care of a young minority athlete without a lot of social capital. The intact family helps the young athlete to thrive at the school or to figure out how to navigate the college byways. The movie hints at a far more common and pernicious problem which is the the penchant of colleges to hire high school or AAU coaches or handlers of the young athletes to their programs as part of a package recruiting deal. This is a far more serious and systematic problem that again trades upon the young athletes vulnerability and trust and affection for adults.
On the other hand, the movie reminds us of a vital lesson that needs to be relearned again and again and again. Race and class matter, but love and friendship can engage those barriers, sometime even surmount them. This reality is rare but vital to remember. The existence of unique and lucky acts of charity cannot replace policy nor assure us that all is well at the intersection of class, race and college athletics, but now and then, it gives us a lesson that at the human scale
No one knows how many young minority athletes find their way through this very odd combination of interest and care where white parents become surrogate guardians of players who may have not social or economic means to sustain themselves yet have drive and talent to succeed in the gladiatorial world of football. But it is not a pretty sight nor one particularly worthy of celebration. It highlights the absolute vulnerability of the young minority athletes. mythologizes the noblesse oblige of intact middle class families while entangling emotions, interest and race in unbelievably complicated ways. The picture of the movie softens with humor and strong protagonists the aching inequality and pain beneath it.
(PS: As irrelevant asides, I can’t tell you how many NCAA violations I counted in the movie or that occurred in the real life story of Ohr. The other interesting factoid of the movie is that not a single coach seen or worshipped in the movie remains at the school they coached when the events transpired.)