One thing you hear a lot about the great HBO series The Wire is some variation on "it ruined all other cop shows for me." And it's true. The Wire was so smart about policework, so painfully realistic without sacrificing drama, that it made damn near everything else, with the obligatory gun-and-badge-scene clichés and pat little whodunnits, seem downright silly; ridiculous. Creators and writers David Simon and Ed Burns called the bluff of an entire genre. They stripped away the Hollywood varnish and made their peers look goofy, clueless, like so many deer staring at headlights.
Michael Lewis's The Blind Side isn't quite like that, but it's close. Certainly I will henceforth have trouble restraining gales of laughter at the naiveté of football movies about scrappy underdog quarterbacks who overcome the odds and lead their teams to victory. Or about the glory of college football. Or about players who make it to the NFL through sheer pluck and determination.
Even more so than The Wire to lame cop dramas, The Blind Side is an explicit rebuke to such stories. Straight up, Lewis (who also wrote Moneyball) says: it doesn't work that way. First of all, the quarterback isn't even that important. A coach with a handle on strategy and talent elsewhere on the roster, can, within reason, make damn near anyone look good throwing the ball. Second: who makes it to the NFL is determined, 99% of the time, not by persistence and heart, but by genetics. Size. Much more than you might think, shape. Innate athleticism that cannot be taught or learned. Depressingly, the selection process for great football prospects often resembles a state fair where people admire the girth and gait of cattle and "hmm" and point thoughtfully.
Third: the road from high school ball to college ball to "the league" is a combination of farce, madness and travesty. Word about great high school prospects – kids deemed to be big enough, wide enough, fast enough – spreads like wildfire. Coaches flock to the high schools these players call home, but NCAA rules prohibit them from actually speaking to the players until a certain point in their senior year, so they just stand there and watch and drop hints. Then the coaches pull out all the stops to convince the players to sign with their respective schools – schools that, by the way, wouldn't even consider these poor, academically inept, occasionally illiterate kids if they did not carry with them the promise of lucrative football championships.
And it's not like this process regularly leads to poor inner-city kids getting opportunities they otherwise would not have had. Sure, sometimes it works out that way. But since only a small minority of college football players is likely to hit the big time, the system usually chews up and spits out the rest. These are "students" in name only, existing in a sort of academic ghetto. The school cares not about their success but their NCAA eligibility. Graduation rates mostly hover between 50 and 60%. When it becomes clear that the NFL is not in the cards, many players just quit and go back from whence they came.
If this seems like heady material for a Sandra Bullock movie, rest assured that The Blind Side does have a good old-fashioned underdog story – of a sort – at its center. It's the story of Michael Oher, who was drafted by the Baltimore Ravens this year from the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss). Oher was a destitute, essentially illiterate – but enormous – kid from inner-city Memphis who set off one of the biggest recruiting frenzies in football history without really even setting foot on a football field. Good-hearted and fiercely protective of people who show him kindness, Oher wound up at an upscale Christian school and was adopted by a wealthy white family with Ole Miss connections (this is where Bullock comes in). Thanks to his extraordinary physical gifts, he went from having literally nothing and no one to having a genuinely loving family and the prospect of an epic NFL career at left tackle – one of the most prized and well-compensated positions in modern football, charged with protecting the right-handed quarterback's blind side.
This is stirring stuff, but Lewis filters it through the whip-smart, somewhat jaundiced perspective I describe above. My worry, of course, is that the movie – directed by John Lee Hancock (The Rookie) – will make this into a generic story of overcoming the odds. (This is not promising.) Don't be fooled. The message of The Blind Side isn't that even a poor black kid from Memphis can achieve his dreams with persistence and determination. Rather, it's that at the critical time, the market greatly valued what Michael Oher could provide. And what the market wants, the market gets.