Over the weekend, my thoughts kept returning to Michael Lewis’ story about Michael Oher, a former homeless kid who may soon be headed for a sizeable NFL paycheck. Checking around online for reaction reveals a wide range of responses to the story. Uplifting sports story was the most common reaction, while others found it disturbing (my initial reaction), with one or two folks even accusing Lewis and the Times of overt racism. While Lewis left the story intentionally open-ended (that is, he didn’t attempt to present any explicit lessons in the text itself), I believe he meant for us to find the story disturbing (or at least thought-provoking).
Just look at the way Lewis tells Oher’s story. Oher is never directly quoted; it’s unclear if he was even interviewed for this piece (although it’s possible he was for another part of the book). Instead he is spoken about and for by his coaches, teachers, and new family…and as much as the article focuses on him, we don’t get a sense of who Oher really is or what he wants out of life. (An exception is the great “put him on the bus” story near the end.) He’s playing football, was adopted by a rich, white family, graduated from high school, and is attending college, but all that was decided for him and we never learn what Oher wants. Religion is referred to as a driving factor in his adopted family’s efforts to help him. Again, no choice there…not even his family or school had any say in the matter, God told them they *had* to save this kid.
Then there’s the sports angle, the parallels between Oher’s lack of control over his own life and how professional athletes, many from poor economic backgrounds, are treated by their respective teams, leagues, owners, and fans. At one point, Lewis compares Oher’s lack of enthusiasm for football’s aggression to that of Ferdinand the Bull, a veiled reference to the perception of the professional athlete as an animal whose worth is measured in how big, strong, and fast he is.
So what you’ve got is a story about rich white people from the American South using religion to justify taking a potentially valuable black man from his natural environment and deciding the course of his life for him. Sound familiar? Perhaps I’m being a little melodramatic, but this can’t just be an accident on Lewis’ part. As I see it, Oher is Lewis’ “blank slate” in a parable of contemporary America, a one-dimensional character representing black America who is, depending on your perspective, either manipulated, exploited, or saved by white America. Not that it’s bad that Oher has a home, an education, and a family who obviously cares about him, but does the outcome justify the means? And could Oher even have contributed significantly to his direction in life when all this was happening? Who are we to meddle in another person’s life so completely? Conversely, who are we to stand idly by when there are people who need help and we have the means to help them?
I’m not saying Lewis’ story has any of the answers to these questions, but I would suggest that in a country where racial differences still matter and the economic gap between the rich and poor is growing, this is more than just an uplifting sports story.