Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and the now-infamous article exposing Mike Leach's pirate fancy, spoke with us about his new book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game. Lewis follows the story of Michael Oher, the left tackle for Ole Miss who somehow emerged from the ghettos of Memphis to become the adopted son of a wealthy white Memphis couple after keen eyes recognized the massive profile of a prized NFL possession: the left tackle who protects the blind side of the quarterback.
Part one is below: it's long, so we broke it up into two parts. We'll have part two up tomorrow.
OS: Okay, we're ready over here.
ML: So, tell me what you are. You're a website, right?
OS: Yeah, we are. Just to give you a little background on us: we're Every Day Should Be Saturday, and we provide occasionally straight but mostly crooked takes on college football.
ML: Crooked takes for a crooked business.
OS: Can I quote you on that?
ML: That should be your motto.
OS: I guess we can go ahead and get started. Yes, you have a degree from the London School of Economics, and yes, you write for the New York Times, but first we have to establish your bona fides as far as college football.
ML: Ah, well, let's see how we can do that...
OS: You're from Louisiana, correct:
ML: Oh, absolutely, I grew up--when I was a little boy (this will be a starting point) I lived 2 blocks, 3 blocks from Tulane Stadium, the old Sugar Bowl stadium. And every Saturday we'd go down and see the Tulane football team play their season. So the Tulane/LSU games were my first experience of a serious rivalry. That was back when Tulane was actually kind of good.
OS: Okay, so without torturing you too much, if I asked you to complete the rhyme "Hot Boudin, Cold Cous Cous..."
ML: Say that again?
OS: It's an LSU cheer.
ML: I have no idea. I sat on the LSU side. Roll Green Wave. I never understood how Tulane had such a lame mascot. I have no idea about LSU, I really don't. That stadium was always all Tulane people. My father was a Tulane graduate.
OS: Tulane has the crippling disadvantage of having an unimaginable mascot, which doesn't seem to affect Alabama, but there's not hard and set rules in college football.
ML: Well, beyond that college football, I have no bona fides. I never played a lot. I was the quarterback on the hundred pound football team in eighth grade until I got hit once and decided this wasn't for me. I played other sports, but not that. I went to Princeton, and the Princeton football team was I think worse than my high school football team. It didn't seem like real football.
OS: But Princeton still beat Columbia, right? That was pretty standard.
ML: But everybody beat Columbia. That was in the era where Columbia didn't win games for ten years or whatever. Princeton beat Yale when I was there, but it didn't matter very much, and I didn't even go to the games but for once or twice. I don't really count. I'm not really a hardcore football fan. But if I were making the case for me, I would point out that Peyton and Eli Manning both graduated from my high school.
OS: And you did write an article about Eli Manning, and you did write an article about Michael Oher...
ML: Yeah, but that's different than being a fan. When you're a fan, you pay to participate. When you're a writer, you're being paid.
OS: Michael, you pay in so many different ways. So many.
OS: Let me go ahead and ask you: how is Big Mike doing?
ML: Well, his teams sucks.
But although they suck, I don't think they suck quite as bad as they look. The team is very young, and it's almost all freshman and sophomores playing for them, so they're probably not as bad as they look, and they're going to get better.
But all I know about Mike is what the coaches tell me, and they tell me he's great. He's doing good. They tell me--Art Kehoe, the line coach at Ole Miss, told me that he's never had as talented a lineman.
OS: That's the former Miami Hurricanes line coach.
ML: That's right. He was there for 25 years and had all kinds of first round draft picks in the NFL. He says that this is a creature that is so athletically gifted that at his natural weight, he's around 330 pounds with no obvious fat on him. You just don't find that often. He's naturally huge, and naturally fast, and agile and all the rest. He just born for that position. So Kehoe--the rest of them think the only question is if he goes into the NFL draft at the end of his junior year, does he go in the first round of the draft then, or later? I think they'll have very good information, since Jimmy Sexton the agent is a friend of the Tuohys, and he'll let them know exactly where he'll go in the draft. He might very well go into the NFL after his junior year, and if he goes in the first round then he'll go.
You can't really appreciate his performance on tv because 1.) the camera never stays on the line long enough to see what they did, and 2.) it actually kind of shrinks him, the television. If you wander around the Ole Miss sidelines, and then you wander around the LSU sidelines--which I observed most closely becaue they seemed like their most serious opponent--he just looked like a different species. He was bigger than anyone out there.
OS: We were at the South Carolina/Florida football game this Saturday, and I never realized how big the Florida offensive line is. There's this one kid--I think it's Carlton Medder--who is very much the same kind of specimen who is being groomed to be a left tackle. Just looks like a different variety of human being. Just big all over. Not as you say in the book, "a fat guy with skinny legs," but a bell curve freak.
ML: Right. That's what he is. What you do, you add in to this that when the Ole Miss football team...one of the things they do to keep in shape is play basketball, and he's the best basketball player, too. There's guys out there who could be playing the point guard position for Ole Miss. And the position he's playing is shooting guard. You just don't find athletes like this.
I mean, he could get hurt, but even there because he's so solidly built he's never been hurt. The position he plays is less risky than the interior line positions because you don't have people falling up against your legs in the same way. So I'd say that if he was a stock, he's a buy. And he's probably going to have a nice NFL career.
OS: How's he doing academically? For those of our readers who haven't read the book--and since Michael's being kind enough to do this interview you should go out and buy it, because it's a fabulous read--Michael's IQ goes from a tested 80 to a 100 after his entry into a consistent schooling system. One of the challenges was getting him into Ole Miss and making sure that he was performing academically. How's he doing in the classroom?
ML: Shockingly well, actually. I was told that he just missed the dean's list last term. Shocking because, and I don't know if this says more about Michael Oher or Ole Miss--
OS: Our readers will assume the second, Michael.
ML: (laughs) Shocking because these athletes' grades are manipulable to a certain extent. I think that they get themselves into the easy courses, they find the football-friendly professors, and so on and so forth. The general point is that he's doing far, far better than he needs to do in order to stay qualified, and doing better than most of his football teammates. If he does much better, he's doing scandalously, scandalously well. He's gonna have no trouble getting through college.
On behalf of his mind, I would say...I'e watched him over the past few years, and he's become a much more verbal person. He is intelligent--he's not stupid. He's shrewd, and he's sensitive. The way he's impressed me is not with his grades in the classroom, though I'm sure he's worked to get them and they're not entirely fraudulent.
OS: We're not talking about Auburn, here.
ML: Well, I do think we're talking about that. All these schools have the smooth track for the football players--
OS: Sociology at Auburn, Criminal Justice...
ML: It's funny. You watch the Saturday football games, and if it's West Virginia playing, all the football players are "sports management" majors, but if it's Ole Miss playing, all the football players are "criminal justice" majors. So you get the sense that every school has its major for the football team, and it's different from school to school. All the Ole Miss football players aren't majoring in criminal justice because they have a deep and sincere interest in criminal justice. It's that that's where you go to get the grades.
And Michael is majoring in criminal justice. That's not a great sign, but he's doing well. And this is what is true about him: he's not just "not dumb," he's intelligent and sensitive. When he sits down to write something, it's actually impressive. He's got things to say. The mind he's got is a good and interesting mind. That that is true despite his first sixteen years on the planet is amazing.
OS: And speaking of crooked business, I want to ask you about a few of the characters you ran into while you were putting together the book. One of them is Tom Lemming, who is a "recruiting guru."
ML: He's a dynamo.
OS: Yes, but I think being called a "recruiting guru" is a really dubious thing to be called. Tom Lemming is a very controversial figure in college football, especially because of the allegations of power brokering and favors involved in entering his Army All-Star game, that he pushes recruits, etc. Tell me a little bit about how you met Tom Lemming and your initial impressions of him. Just shooting from the hip here--I think he's a total crook.
ML: You do?
OS: He's probably a brilliant talent scout, but as a power broker, he's essentially someone who picks his own markets. I think he says, "if you wanna be on my team, you gotta play things Tom's way.
ML: Well, here's the question for you, then. If that's so, there is a punishment for that. If he's just picking people who pay him to pick him, then he's going to have a very poor record as a prognosticator of talent. He's going to be picking people for the wrong reasons. And the reason I got interested in him was that I went back before I met him and...well, two things.
The first thing that alerted me to his presence was that in picking Michael kind of out of the blue, he generated this incredible frenzy all by himself. He transformed Michael Oher's stock, and he did it all by himself. There was something quixotic about it, and I can tell you with total certainty that in this case no one was telling him he should do it. And Michael Oher when he went to see him didn't want to cooperate with him--it was this very weird type of encounter. It was weird, but this in turn led to Michael being discovered.
Before I met Tom Lemming I went through all his old reports, and it is amazing how good that man is at picking who is going to have a football career. I'm talking as someone who now has marinated in the world of baseball scouts for the last four or five years, and he is so much more reliable an indicator of future football success than all the 2000 people put together who make a living doing it for professional baseball.
If I had to put my money on a Tom Lemming pick or a consensus pick by major league baseball, I'd pick Tom Lemming. Now this is partly to do with the nature of the sport. It is easier to predict a football career looking at an 18-year old kid than it is to predict a baseball career because baseball careers take longer. An 18-year old baseball player is further away from his professional future: he has to learn skills, he has to mature, etcetera, etcetera.
Nevertheless, if you go back through Lemming's old reports, he's got the Michael kind of characters. He's got Jonathan Ogden on his cover at age 18, Orlando Pace...he's been very good at spotting these people.
OS: In all those cases we are talking about bell curve freaks, people who on sight, on eyeball, people looked at and said, Wow, there's my left tackle.
ML: That's true. But now, in his defense, no one said that about Michael Oher. Lemming said that about Michael Oher. Even his high school coach had him at defensive line, didn't know what to do with him. He had him on the bench for games. It was more obvious to Tom Lemming than anyone else. I would think that maybe--I have no idea if there's corruption in the All-American picking--but if there's too much of it, it ceasesto have any meaning. I would thing there would be a real check on it.
My sense of Lemming himself--after meeting him and interviewing him--that he was a guy trying to do his best. His real fear was making mistakes, since that was how he was going to be judged. I mean, look--the problem with all football evaluation is that it's essentially a black market. You're not allowed to have commercial value until you're an NFL player, and you can't do that until you pass through the gates of a college, basically. And so there's a lot of money to be made by everybody but the player because the player can't.
There's probably incentive for someone to pay Tom Lemming to put them on an All-American team, but there's also incentive for Tom Lemming not to put someone on an All-American team because he'd look like a fool for doing it.
OS: True. Although--and I'm trying to last-word you here, but I've got a really good question coming up--I think there's a certain amount of self-determination going on. There's an obviously talent person, and they're put in a good system, and taken at a blue-chip first-rank school. The recruit can enjoy a lot of success simply because he picked them. There's a kind of circularity to it.
ML: I don't necessarily agree with you on that, but it's an interesting idea because it undermines the idea that football is a meritocracy...so you're saying that the schools that are successful are stupid enough to take a guy simply because Tom Lemming picks him?
OS: Certainly. And not just good schools, but the schools we'd call the big market schools. Perfect example: my former coach at the University of Florida, whose name we don't mention on our blog (we call him [NAME REDACTED}) who is now coach at Illinois, was a definite blue-chip laundry lister. If Lemming, Scout, or Rivals had a guy up there, [NAME REDACTED] was at their door.
He relied on independent evaluation a lot, whereas his predecessor, Steve Spurrier, was fond of looking at guys, seeing something, and saying I think there's something there that the experts aren't accounting for. That was the case with Rex Grossman, who was almost entirely unrecruited before he came to the University of Florida. Bobby Knight had to send a videotape to Spurrier of him to get him noticed.
ML: I would think that it would work like any market, where you'll suck at it if you rely on a bad talent evaluator to make your pick, your team won't be very good, and you'll lose your job. There would be some market check on all this corruption.
OS: Plus you have those guys--you write about Bill Walsh, a guy who can take players and put them in a system where they're going to succeed.
ML: In college football, the character there is Mike Leach of Texas Tech, a guy who created a system that allows people to be better than they actually are. Have you watched any of their games this year?
OS: I've watched a lot of Texas Tech football, and in fact in my queue of good questions I have a Mike Leach question. But first...
ML: This is your zinger.
OS: No, no, this is my "heavily theoretical question" You'll not have a college football blog ask you a more theoretical question
ML: Go ahead.
OS: You are a big systems thinker. You are good at taking an economic viewpoint on things and applying it to the world of sports, whether it's Michael Oher and valuation and the systems that worked to put him at Ole Miss, or Moneyball, or Mike Leach exploiting various inefficiencies in defenses or...comparative advantages he may have against the defense using his talent.
What sort of inefficiencies as a whole do you see in the college system? You mention that college football is a black market--what are some other inefficiencies you see?
ML: I'll tell you my favorite. It's a sociological one. One of the big problems in our country is the presence of ghettos. Inner-city America is a large, growing, festering social problem, and it's being cordoned off from the rest of society. There's a brief moment when the most dangerous people in this environment--18-22 year old men with a talent for violence on the football field--come in contact with the broader culture. And the broader culture of rich white businessmen take a real interest in them.
Yet we've created a system that prevents those two groups from having anything meaningful to do with each other. It's called the NCAA. If the rich white businessman so much as buys lunch for one of these poor black kids, it's a violation. So the only way the relationship occurs is illicitly and out of sight.
There's a huge social opportunity--instead of saying these boosters can't do anything to make these kids want to play football for their school--instead of saying that, say just the opposite. Let's take this brief moment in these kids' lives when the broader society is interested in them and cultivate it. Say you have to have these relationships, you have to be mentored, you have to have jobs in the offseason, so they have when it's over and there's no future in professional football they have the kind of connections a white kid has to get on. That strikes me as a grotesque inefficiency of the current system.
OS: So you're saying the NCAA is preventing this built-in mentoring program from happening?
ML: The chief purpose of its investigative and enforcement division is to prevent these two groups of people from having any meaningful relationship with each other because they're afraid of the corruption or professionalization of what they pretend is an amateur sport. It's not an amateur sport. College football is a professional sport for everyone except the people who play it. The coaches make lots of money. The colleges make pots of money. They charge lots of money for their tickets and fancy skyboxes and they can't get money for their school but for their football team in a lot of these places. And yet the players are by rule--by fiat--amateurs who can't accept a nickel except for the college scholarships most don't place any real value on anyway.
If the NCAA really wants college football to be an amateur sport, let's make admission to the games free. Let's say that coaches shouldn't be paid more than the average teacher at the school. Lets cleanse this of money and let the television networks run the games for free. No ones going to do that, of course they're not going to do that.
They should acknowledge that they have a huge commercial success on their hands, and as a result this is a professional enterprise, and that these kids who have big economic value to these schools should be paid. In addition to being paid, they should be allowed/encouraged as a matter of social policy to form meaningful relationships with people outside the football field.
OS: Okay, so while we're getting you to talk crazy by telling the truth, let me go ahead and ask you...a central issue for the NCAA this year has been the lingering fear that they are going to have their tax-exempt status revoked by Congress.
OS: It was mentioned by the outgoing vice-chair of the House Ways and Means Committee that he saw no reason for the NCAA to be a tax-exempt organization because their mission is unclear--and if you read Myles Brand's answer to our email on this, his answer is elliptical, to say the least--what's your take on the NCAA, whatever it does, being a tax-exempt organization?
ML: I don't see why it should be. I agree: why should it be a tax-exempt organization? I think that what's happened is that universities cleverly use the quarry anti-market status of universities to cloak essentially a big business. I think it all needs to be demythologized.
I think the players remind me of where baseball players were in the 40s, 50s, and 60s where people said, They shouldn't be paid for playing a game anyway, and that they should be paid a market wage for their labor is crazy. The fact that the university is an institution that has existed outside of the market for so long enables really a corrupt arrangement. And they are--the NCAA--a big business. I don't know why they aren't treated as a big business.
OS: Okay. Good. (laughs.) It's just music to my ears.
ML: I wouldn't be so upset about it if it was just hypocrisy. But lives are at stake here. The NCAA, in their sweaty desire to preserve the illusion that this is amateur athletics, and that it's not only amateur but also related to scholarly endeavor, they keep these kids who are going to school to play for their football team out of school altogether.
There's a little two-line bit toward the end of the book that mentions that Memphis high school coaches had done a little study showing that out of every six high schoolers talented enough to earn a D-1 scholarship, only one had made the grades required by the NCAA. I think that if there is a market for these kids services and getting them out of the inner city, the NCAA should not be in the business of sending them back into it. And we already know that the academic experience of most big-time football players is a sham--not all of them, but...
Why not just say it? That the criminal justice major at Ole Miss or the sports management major at West Virginia is a front for the football program.
OS: Oh, now, you know that "Growing Fruit for Fun and Profit" was a rigorous class at the University of Florida when I was there.
ML: (laughs) It comes at a huge cost, though; not only are kids prevented from getting out and getting to a better life, but what really should be going on is an open acknowlegement that many of these kids are coming in not only unprepared for college, but unprepared for the sixth grade. What they should be getting is the medicine along with their football experience. They should be taught to read and write. They should be taught the things that public schools fail to teach them how to do, so that they actually get something out of the experience rather than this sort of sham education that they get.
It would be reeeeeeal interesting--you're never going to get to do this--to go around to big-time college football programs, strip out the seniors, take them individually into rooms and test their reading comprehension, test their ability to do simple mathematics, test them on the things a twelve-year old in a good school system would know how to do. Test them and see how many of them pass I bet it would be shocking how few of them would.
The whole point of sports management or criminal justice is that you really don't have to be able to read to do it. And so the NCAA fighting to preserve hypocrisy creates a lot of bad, a lot of evil. It is a dark institution.
OS: Michael Lewis, why do you hate college football?
ML: I don't hate college football! I just think the players should be paid, and the players would generally agree.
End Part One. We&'ll have the transcription for part two up tomorrow, where we discuss the geniune weirdness of Mike Leach, FOOTBAW YAW with Ed Orgeron, and much more. Michael Lewis' latest book is The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game.