George Will offers his take on the new book by Michael Lewis, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Lewis is the author of Moneyball, the 2003 bestseller that examined how the small-market Oakland Athletics stayed competitive in the financially top-heavy world of baseball and introduced "sabremetrics" to the general public. As Will notes, Lewis “is advancing a new genre of journalism that shows how market forces and economic reasoning shape the evolution of sports.”
Lewis’s latest case study involves college football, which has always been willing to accommodate the, uh, academically challenged but athletically able young men who serve as cash cows for the institution. Pro football then reaps the benefits of what is essentially a free farm system. In this particular case the efficient causes of change are Lawrence Taylor (the prototype athletic, pass-rushing outside linebacker) and Bill Walsh (architect of the West Coast and similar offenses, which spread the field) This combination can be lethal for quarterbacks unless their blind side is protected against freaks of nature like Taylor. This means the left offensive tackle for right-handed quarterbacks. Which means that the left tackle’s economic value has skyrocketed. Which means that freaks of nature are now being recruited to play what had hitherto been about the most obscure position on the field. Which means that colleges are willing to look the other way when admitting left tackles as well as quarterbacks and running backs.
Lewis’ book describes one of those freaks of nature – a freshman tackle at the University of Mississippi with an I.Q. of 80 from the mean streets of Memphis who bounced from foster home to foster home. At the end of the day much of the story revolves around the missionary spirit of the young man’s current parents – Ole Miss graduates and fanatic football fans, and evangelical Christians, who want to make a life for their foster son. The book is replete with colorful tales of creative recruiting and accreditation. Whether this is a depressing or uplifting tale will depend, I suppose, on how the young man’s life and career turn out. Be sure there will be a sequel if this one sells – Lewis isn’t immune to market forces either.
The NCAA has just come out with its latest study on the academic performance of college athletes, which indicates that they now graduate at slightly higher rate than the non-athlete student body (63-61%) after six years. The average for football remains below that level, 55%, as does basketball, 46%. The methodology used by the NCAA -- recently changed to accommodate complaints by coaches -- undoubtedly cooks the books, as does the federal methodology used to calculate overall graduation rates, so it’s hard to say what’s really going on. Here at the University of Virginia, we have just opened the posh John Paul Jones arenafor basketball – sorry, UVA hasn’t suddenly gone patriotic; it’s named after the father of a big donor. This has led to the usual criticism. One professor termed the new arena "Jefferson on steroids." He noted that 50 academic chairs could have been endowed for the money spent on the facility. As if John Paul Jones and the rest of the donors were going to do that.
Jefferson on steroids -- that’s about the only accusation that hasn’t been made against the Sage of Monticello. I wonder if the author of the Declaration could play left tackle?
Should be really be shocked that gambling is taking place in Casablanca? Lewis’ book is hardly a revelation. I would tell you some stories related to me by my great uncles, who were college athletes in the 1920s and 1930s, except they would get several universities placed on probation. My own view on the subject, as I have said, is that if it is corruption, it is magnificent corruption, and we should lose sight of neither element. Although there is great room for reform in college athletics, there is much more need for revolution in the colleges as a whole. Start there first. Somehow I don’t think Donna Shalala is doing much on either front.