Blind-Sided | Michael Lewis tackles football, race and Berkeley's facial hair.
One of the most important positions in the NFL is the left tackle who protects the league’s mostly right- handed quarterbacks from being waylaid by blitzing defenders from their left or “blind” side. To play the position one must not only be huge, but agile, strong and very quick—attributes that a Tennessean named Michael Oher fit perfectly. Literally on the verge of being homeless, Oher found his way to an exclusive Memphis Christian high school where he was recruited to play football and eventually adopted by a wealthy, white Taco Bell franchisee and his family. The fast food kingpin (Sean Tuohy) also just happened to be a childhood buddy of Berkeley writer Michael Lewis. After some prodding from his wife, former MTV newsie Tabitha Soren, Lewis decided to turn Oher’s story into a book. The result is The Blind Side (W.W. Norton, 2006). Like his previous sports tome, Moneyball, about how Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane is able to keep the low-budget team a winner, Lewis’ tale of Oher’s rise from the ghetto is a compelling read. I tracked Lewis down to LA where he was flogging the book recently to see if I could blindside him with a few questions of my own.
Paul Kilduff: Are you doing the Jim Rome show while you’re down there?
Michael Lewis: I did him for Moneyball. Once it became a war in the baseball world, he got interested. He had me in New York and I was just staring into a television. But in the end, this person he had brought on to argue with me [and I] were calling each other assholes. It was a little unpleasant.
PK: That sounds like epic TV that you should recreate for this book. How’s Berkeley treating you?
ML: I love Berkeley. . .We had been offered sinecures at the journalism school by Orville [Schell]. Tabitha had a fellowship at Stanford which had brought us out to California in the first place. And she got pregnant when we were in Berkeley and we really were faced with this decision of where to live and by that time—it had only been four or five months—we felt completely at home in the place. So that’s how it all started. It has a momentum all to itself. And we had two children and a third on the way. We are very well settled in. We’re not going anywhere.
PK: So, are you living the exposed-brick yuppie dream in Berkeley?
ML: Oh no, no, no. It’s hard to find that in Berkeley. We’re in a Craftsman house, basically on Codornices Park. So, now we’re Berkeleyans or Berkeleyites. What is it called?
PK: Commie. No, I think Berkeleyite.
ML: We’re Berkeleyites for good. There [are] such associations with Berkeley when you leave Berkeley—most of which don’t really apply to me. I think university towns just generally are great places to live, but when I’m on the road people assume I’m this raving lefty and they’re surprised I’m not in sandals and have a little beard and all the rest.
PK: What’s going to happen to Michael Oher if he doesn’t make it into the NFL?
ML: Well, he has a father who’s worth $50 million so it’s not as if he’s going to starve and my guess is he’d probably go into his father’s business. I don’t know but that’s what he says he wants to do after he finishes playing pro ball. Because that position he plays has these very odd physical specifications that so few human beings meet and he meets them so exactly, unless he gets hurt he’s going to get a shot. And he’s probably going to be drafted very high.
He could flop in NFL and wash out and that’s possible, you never know. But he’s not one of these kids who’s actually unreasonably thinking he’s going to be a pro football player. He’s already kind of beaten them off with a stick and has coaches saying they want to draft him. So, it’s not unrealistic. He had that unrealistic ambition to be Michael Jordan and that was absurd. And he would be out on the street thinking of ways of being discovered by some NBA talent scout and it never would have happened. But he’s got some foundation now.
He’s an odd duck down there because there aren’t many black kids from inner-city Memphis who function very easily socially in white Memphis and he does now. And there are plenty of people who would love to have him around. Fred Smith, the CEO of FedEx, has a big interest in him just personally. This is one of the problems that this little social experiment illustrated and in his particular case solved. That the big problem that these kids have—the kids who are sort of pre-professional football players from the ghetto and who aren’t scholars, just kind of faking their way through college—is they don’t connect up socially with the wider world. They get there and they’re in this little bubble. Partly by edict of the NCAA, they’re not allowed to have much interaction with the well-to-do, white alumni who worship them for the brief period they’re playing football. So they’re not able to capitalize by making connections. And that’s a great shame. It’s a huge waste because it’s a brief moment where white people are actually interested in black people in that world. It could be used to forge a lot of relationships that could be useful to the kids.
PK: But what about the greater issue of pro sports or entertainment being seen as the only way out of the ghetto?
ML: The problem is these kids who are born in inner-city Memphis or inner-city Oakland and don’t have any kind of family structure and have a shitty public school system and all the rest. They unfortunately have an environment in which they can get a little comfortable. And it’s cut off entirely from the wider world so they’re not made uncomfortable. They’re not forced to interact. When you think of the problems of urban America and the kind of typically impoverished black kid in a single-parent or no-parent household, you don’t think the problem is if he’s a great athlete he won’t be discovered. You think that is the way out.
And I think what Michael’s story illustrates is how obstructed that path actually is. That even if you were a great athlete, you required this incredibly flukish series of events. So what happened if he was actually designed to be a doctor or a musician or some other thing? So in an odd way he sort of proves the point you’re making with your question by taking on what everybody thinks is the clean case—the athlete, of course he’ll be given a chance. And I think Michael says at one point in the book if everybody got a chance to play there’d have to be two NFLs. That even in the case of athletes they’re suppressed in some way.
PK: But it also points out that someone who’s meant to be a doctor, without a benefactor it’s not going to happen.
ML: That’s right. You’re lost.
PK: Ultimately, isn’t that a shame?
ML: Oh my god, it’s horrible. It’s a sin. It’s an awful thing that it happens to people but if you just want to be cold and rational about it, it’s also horribly inefficient that instead of cultivating the talents of people we create this system that essentially turns them into social problems that cost a million dollars to deal with over the course of their lifetimes. That’s just crazy. It does strike me that one of the possible lessons of this story is that the mere existence of a ghetto is a very, very bad thing and that having a sort of separate and supposedly equal environment does not work because it’s not equal, but it is separate—if you could break it up some way and create interaction between privilege and lack of privilege.
And it’s funny, there’s a lot of people with good hearts who would like to do things and just don’t even know how to begin. My sister has discovered what may be a world-class ballet dancer in a 14-year-old black New Orleans kid who no one would have ever known wanted to dance had she not gotten into his life and sort of directed him. And now he’s at a prep school on full scholarship in Massachusetts for artistically talented kids and she took him there and she made it all happen. And I just think people who have the ability to basically serve as parents and to provide and nurture if they were interacting with these kids the outcomes would be radically different.
PK: Speaking of benefactors, your friend who took in Michael is a Taco Bell magnate. Did you ever consider whether a 350-pound teenager should be eating a lot of grilled stuffed burritos?
ML: Let me tell you what, you go to Memphis and Taco Bell is the least of your problems.
PK: Taco Bell is actually health food there?
ML: You can walk many miles before you encounter anything green to eat. They all eat badly. I tried to bring a little bit of California aestheticism and culinary refinement into their lives and I succeeded in making them feel a little guilty and Sean himself has lost fifteen pounds. I made him a little more sensitive to it. And Leann [Tuohy] is acutely aware of all these studies that show linemen in the NFL who weigh 350 pounds have a life expectancy of 55 years. And so she is programmed to get Michael down. He’s not going to be allowed to be fat for his whole life. He’s actually not fat at all now. If you saw him without his football uniform on and his shirt tucked in, you’d think he’s slim and he’s 330 pounds. He’s just huge. Broad. But he’s trim now. He was not trim when he walked into their lives. He was kind of lumpy.
Professional football players do not have a high-quality life after football—even the little ones. They get the hell beat out of them. I actually did a little piece for the Times sports magazine about Willie Wood. Do you remember him? Green Bay Packers defensive back. He was 5’11”. He was just a defensive back and he’s essentially crippled. And he went through a long list of all his teammates who are essentially crippled or dead and these are guys who should be enjoying their golden years. And it’s just not a healthy way of life, but it’s a free world. You got to let people do what they want to do up to a certain point without hurting anybody. So, I don’t really have any ambition to rail against the NFL on life expectancy.
PK: As a New Orleans native, what did you think about all the hoopla surrounding the reopening of the New Orleans Superdome while at the same time they still can’t seem to finish cleaning up the mess from Katrina in the nearby Ninth Ward?
ML: They’re not mutually exclusive problems. The storm was colorblind and actually class-blind too. The Ninth Ward has gotten an awful lot of attention but there are huge tracts of poor and middle-class and lower middle-class white New Orleans that are also in a very similar situation. You know what the return of the Saints to the Superdome shows? It shows that the NFL is better run than the city of New Orleans. And it is.
The NFL actually managed to get something done and that’s great for the city of New Orleans because something happened. The problem with New Orleans is not that there’s no money available or that the resources were distributed wrongly and the Saints got ’em and the Ninth Ward didn’t. The problem is the mayor is totally inept and he was put back into office largely by the citizens of the Ninth Ward. So, it’s the mayor who has not done a thing. You want to see a great Web site? It’s called www.whereisnagin.com and it tracks his movements across the country and they can never find him in New Orleans. But there’s no actual plan of action for what to do.
And clean-up of the Ninth Ward is not the problem because what’s going to have to happen is those houses, not just in the Ninth Ward, but anything that had that kind of water in it and has been sitting there for so long—they’re all going to have to be bulldozed. I mean new houses can go up there, but the houses themselves are unsalvageable and it’s incredible. You would not believe it. It feels like Pompeii when you’re wandering around it. So it is a shame that the NFL is better run than the city of New Orleans. But the NFL really shouldn’t be faulted for that.
PK: What’s stopping these homes from being bulldozed? People dreaming that they’re going to move back in someday?
ML: No one is willing to make the statement that these places are going to be uninhabitable because they’re 12 feet below sea level. Or they can’t adequately be protected. And so what’s happening is the markets are sort of just working as they work and so nobody will insure or lend against properties that are in these low-lying areas. The people who had the homes don’t have any resources to do anything to them.
If the mayor had a plan, he would say, “Look, there are relatively high levels of the Ninth Ward. There are parts of the city that are more safely inhabitable than others.” He’d say, “Look, the footprint of the city’s going to shrink. The city’s going to be strong, but smaller and this is where we’re going to provide city services and we’re going to do it well.” And then he would bring in the insurers and the bankers around the table and publicly shame them into functioning. That would be the beginning of something, but he literally has said it’s all coming back just the way it was and that’s not going to happen and probably shouldn’t happen because that’s just setting itself up to happen all over again.
The fact is that even if he says that, there [are] no resources for that. No one is going to provide the money to people to rebuild their house next to the industrial canal 12 feet below sea level.
PK: What’s your connection to one of my favorite writers, Tom Wolfe?
ML: Turns out I gave the oddly named Tom Wolfe Memorial Lecture at Washington and Lee University and he was sitting on the stage and I thought, “He’s still around. You should call it the Tom Wolfe Lecture.” Afterwards we drove back up together from his alma mater to Dulles Airport and we got lost and ended up in West Virginia so we had about six hours in the car together and I was telling him this story and my uncertainty about whether I actually wanted to make a book of it. And he was poking and prodding and saying “You’ve really got to do this.” I didn’t ask him to read it, but I guess he got a copy and he responded to it. I’ve always admired him.
PK: Is he a mentor?
ML: Well, he’s someone I admire. These relationships between writers—there’s only so much one can do for the other but it’s nice to have people to look up [to] and I’ve long looked up to him.
PK: You and he are on the same wavelength as far as your novelistic, “new journalism” approach to non-fiction.
ML: I think our politics are probably a little different. I tell you where we overlap quite a bit is we both think the techniques of the novel can be applied to nonfiction. And if you just immerse yourself in the story, you can grab scenes and dialogue because you’re there and you’ve got the material. He hasn’t done a non-fiction book in ages. The last one he did was The Right Stuff. I asked him once what he thought his very best piece of writing was and he said the Radical Chic was the only thing that came off exactly as he hoped it would.
PK: So he really does wear those ice cream suits?
ML: All the time. I asked his wife about this. She says even when he’s not going out he gets up in the morning and puts on a white suit. He doesn’t just putter around the house in sweats.
PK: What do you wear?
ML: I wear sweats. No. I don’t have any pretension to emulating his style. It’s his own thing. He says he does it because he had one suit, it was white, and he wore it in winter once and it annoyed people. He liked that it annoyed people. But at the same time, his hero is Mark Twain and Mark Twain ran around with a white suit on all the time. It’s hard to know where that comes from.
PK: Have you fully succumbed to the Berkeley “I’m always ready to go camping” look?
ML: No, I haven’t. I don’t dress formally. My wife would tell you I don’t dress any differently than when I was in high school. I’m an attenuated kind of preppy kid.
PK: In the Bay Area, the minute you put on a sport coat or anything remotely kind of nice, all of sudden people think: job interview, wedding, funeral.
ML: That, along with the unsightly facial hair. You don’t see much of it in New Orleans. I do feel that someone with a crop duster should fill it with Nair and fly it across Berkeley.