Lou Schuler

Author, Journalist, Presenter

Posted 02/09/2011

Youth and Sports: America’s Blind Side?

How many Michael Ohers are out there, waiting to be discovered?

I’ve just started reading Michael Oher’s new book, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond. If you’ve read The Blind Side, Michael Lewis’ absolutely magnificent introduction to Oher, or seen the movie, then you know the basic outline of his story:

  • an enormous teenager gains admission to a private Christian academy in Memphis
  • he’s taken in by the wealthy Touhy family
  • he becomes one of the most highly recruited high school football players in the country
  • he becomes an all-American offensive tackle at Ole Miss
  • he’s a first-round draft pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2009
  • he’s now the starting left tackle for the Ravens

Even more amazing, to me, is what was left out of The Blind Side: Oher, whose IQ was measured at 80 when he was in the Memphis public schools, made the dean’s list twice at Mississippi, and earned a bachelor’s degree before he moved on to the NFL. (By “left out,” I mean it wasn’t yet known at the time Lewis wrote the book.)

So now we come to this question: Did sports “save” Michael Oher from a life on the streets of Memphis? Did the Touhy family and the community at Briarcrest Christian School save him? Or did Oher save himself, using sports because it was the most convenient venue for his escape from the inner city?

In The Blind Side, Lewis writes about how Oher saw himself as the next Michael Jordan, and played basketball for hours a day while rarely attending school. While other big kids eventually come to own their size, walking with a lumbering gate, Oher never thought of himself as a load, and as a consequence moved like a kid half his size. (It helped that, being homeless, he rarely saw himself in a mirror.)

This may be my favorite passage in the entire book:

He devoted so much time and energy to defying his own size that it couldn’t help but yield results. Even as he became one of the biggest human beings in Hurt Village [a housing project in Memphis], he remained quick and agile. He willed himself to be graceful — to remain a little man inside a big man’s body. Later, college coaches who came to watch him would see a freak of nature. But where had nature left off, and nurture taken over?

Later in the book’s final chapter, Lewis mentions a study that reached this conclusion: “for every six public-school kids with the ability to play college sports, five failed to qualify academically.”

I find it ironic, as a middle-class parent, that so many of my friends and neighbors dream of raising kids who qualify athletically — who get scholarships to play college sports. Qualifying academically is a given.

Is that a good idea?

Freakonomics co-author Michael Dubner addresses that question here, and raises interesting questions without finding an answer:

I am constantly surprised at how many of my kids’ friends spend most or all of their weekends on travel sports teams. I would have loved to play baseball every weekend of my life when I was a kid, and to force my family to build their schedule around it, but that didn’t happen. That said, I have a daughter who, at 9, is a good and devoted figure skater, so yes, I’m becoming one of those bleary-eyed rink dads you might see some mornings.

The question of opportunity cost is, to me, the most interesting one. I have heard of some parents who had a strong inclination to send their kids to a religious school but decided against it because they worried their religious studies would cut into their acquisition of secular knowledge. The same concern could obviously be applied to the hours and hours spent on youth sports.

It’s not really a worry for us. We have two kids in karate, which involves two or three classes a week into infinity. It’s great exercise and great discipline, and the kids love it. But nobody gives scholarships for martial arts that I know of. Even if they did, I can’t see myself pushing either of them in that direction. I put in my time as a soccer dad, and while I miss parts of it, my daughter doesn’t miss playing at all. Not one tiny bit. If she tried competitive karate, she’d probably stop enjoying it as well.

So how much emphasis should parents put on sports?

First off, it would be crazy for me, as a fitness professional, to not stress the importance of physical activity in my own home. None of my kids enjoyed team sports, so I’ve done all I can to encourage the activities they prefer. Currently, that means karate for the older two and dance for the youngest.

Second, I think every kid should have some baseline sports-related experience. Off the top of my head, I think American kids should know how to:

  • swim
  • ride a bike
  • climb
  • paddle
  • kick a ball
  • hit a ball with a bat, tennis racket, or golf club

What do you think? Did I leave anything out?

Parents, how much emphasis do you place on sports? If you have kids with ability and interest, how far do you push them?



  • Blind Side is a great book. I picked it up on a whim because I thought it was about strategy, but still read in one sitting because it was that good.

    I don’t have kids, but I can think back to my child hood and remember how much little things like what you listed helped me out in sports and work (played D3 football and currently in the Army).

    I’d include run and jump, maybe obvious, but also the bases for an active lifestlye.

  • Grant Davis

    You raise some fantastic questions. I think your list of baseline sports-related experience, or skills, is a good one. But I would add that combining those skills with an organized team–and it could be just a weekly informal game among friends–is critical. I say this because the value of the team experience–discovering that each player has strengths and weaknesses and figuring out how to assign each other roles to create the best team–is a lesson that pays dividends for the rest of anyone’s life.
    The thing I think most parents forget is that their kids don’t need to be on a traveling team to learn these lessons. And frankly, I’d rather see my kids play a variety of sports throughout the year than focus on one sport exclusively. Variety makes for a healthier body and mind.
    At the freak level of talent, one could argue that variety also makes a better athlete. Case in point: Troy Tulowitzki the 20-something shortstop for the Colorado Rockies, credits his high school basketball and football teams for laying the foundation to play as well as he can. But he’s noticed that there is a whole generation of young players stuck in the minors who’ve only known baseball for the last 15 years of their lives and they simply don’t have the agility to play the field at the big-league level. He makes a good case to me for keeping my kids involved in as many different things as they’re interested in. While they may not develop their skills as well as someone who does nothing but play soccer or hockey all year, I bet they’re going to have a healthier approach to exercise and recreation for the rest of their lives. And that’s really my goal with my kids. Well, that and making sure they do all their homework.

  • Bonnie

    I think parents should encourage kids to move, but play to their own strengths. As the smallest girl in class I was always one of the last kids picked for any team. I thought I was a total spaz and not meant to do anything athletic. What took me a long time to realize was that after school and on weekends I was riding a bike, swimming, climbing trees, hiking, cross country skiing, etc. Sports can be great, but they’re not the end all, be all of activity. Only a small percentage of kids get athletic scholarships, so parents shouldn’t make their kids do team sports for the sole purpose of getting one.

  • My wife and I are really supportive to my children’s interests. The elder loves swimming and the other loves biking. Of course, we enrolled the elder to swimming lessons and we bought a bike for the young one. Anyway, we do it as a family together because all of us know how to swim and ride a bike. But each of my kids has interest to focus a thing.

  • Lou:

    Another excellent post! One thing I think you forgot in your list at the end there is how to catch!

  • Good point, Keith. I agree.

    I starting playing baseball in my yard with my family when I was 3, so it wasn’t until I had kids that I realized how difficult it is to teach someone how to catch a ball with a glove. I literally can’t remember a time when I didn’t know how to catch a baseball.

    Catching a football is an entirely different skill.

    I could also have included hitting a ball with your hands. I hope all kids, boys and girls, play volleyball and/or handball once or twice just to get the basic idea.

  • I was not into sports when I was young. In the frequent absence of my father, my mum called the shots that’s why she us in speech and dance classes. I never learned how to swim, but I still wonder why I can perfectly back stroke when I float. I still feel I missed out on something huge so now that I have a kid, I real;ly agree that he need to learn some basic sports.

  • This was an AMAZING book. I saw the movie first which I think portrayed a lot of the events very well (street life, the truck accident, his social life etc…)

    As a kid I played a lot of sports. Mostly because I felt when I played it felt accomplishing and I knew I achieved it myself and it was a get away from problems and stress.

    I know as far as my kids go I won’t put much emphasis on one thing over another. I agree with the list though as I think everyone should have basic athletic ability.
    I may suggest things be given a try, but I say once a kid finds a knack for something that’s where you run with it. I feel it’s not right to force liking of something onto a child. and I feel more often then not someone(anyone for that matter) is going to prevail in something the are passionate about rather then just doing something repetitive they don’t enjoy to their fullest…be it football, baseball, soccer, an instrument, singing, or even art such as painting or photography.