Christ v. Christian

Though I expected Michael Lewis’s Blind Side to do for football what his Moneyball did for baseball, I found my stomach churning as I read the story of Michael Oher, a black child neglected for years in the slums and streets of Memphis, until happenstance brought him to the doorstep of the exclusive, largely white, putatively Christian Briarcrest School in the suburbs. Michael is the focus of Lewis’s book, which is ostensibly about the evolution of the left tackle as one of the most important positions in football, because he is a physical anomaly, built exactly the way pro teams want their left tackles to be built. While the story seems subsequently to have been spun (though Lewis himself is admirably objective) as one of kindly Christians taking in an underprivileged minority child (see, for example, David Forsmark’s FrontPage article), I put down the book with the disgusted sense that Michael only got in the door because he promised to lead Briarcrest Christian School to victory.

There is, for example, the revelation that Briarcrest explicitly considered and rejected, after Michael proved capable of adapting to its environment, bringing in other desperately poor black children from Memphis’s deplorable public schools, even when offered funding to do so. Not that the school is strapped for cash; Lewis reveals that Briarcrest’s wealthy parents had recently built a one-million dollar football stadium for their children. But letting in what Christ called “the least of these”? Think of what it would do to the school’s average SAT score!

It’s unfortunate that Briarcrest features so prominently in Lewis’s book, because it doesn’t leave one with a favorable impression of Christian schools. Lewis recounts, for example, the “Jesus Bowl,” a state-championship game between Briarcrest and another large Christian school. “It didn’t take long,” Lewis reveals, “to see that Jesus was keeping his distance.” By half-time a player for one school had been flagged for suggesting the referee had an unnatural knowledge of his mother, and a Briarcrest player had been penalized for gallivanting about the field, shouting “We’re gonna beat their f_____ ass!” — an affront not just to decency but to grammar. Capping the disgusting display, as Briarcrest began to pull ahead, players for the other Christian school took to firing themselves at Michael’s knees in an attempt to injure him.

Jesus must be so very proud.

While the parents who took Michael in (and eventually adopted him) come off as genuinely concerned about his well-being, Lewis exposes a host of despicable adults circling him like sharks. There is the head coach of the Briarcrest football team, who angles to get a job with the University of Tennessee by suggesting he can influence Michael to enroll there. While the principal and trustees of this Christian school thought he was fit enough to coach their children, it was Michael who first saw through him, calling him the “Snake.” Tellingly, the coach actually liked the nickname.

And though we’ve come to expect as much from universities, I was surprised to learn that Brigham Young University, of all places, is the “go to” spot for ill-educated high school sports prospects who want to artificially inflate their grades to meet NCAA entrance requirements. As Lewis explains, Michael replaced several high school “F’s” with “A’s” by enrolling in BYU Internet courses like “Character Education,” which required only that a student “read a few brief passages from famous works — a speech by Lou Gherig here, a letter by Abraham Lincoln there — and then answer five questions about it.” So much for my image of upright Mormons.

Of course they’re only serving a market demand, which ultimately is you and me, and our love of entertaining college sports. Michael Oher eventually settled on the University of Mississippi, and was duly admitted, even though he is barely functionally literate at best. If he’s fortunate, he’ll play for several years in the NFL, before being hobbled by injuries and the sheer punishment to his heart from carrying too much weight. We’ll cheer him on, and then we’ll forget about him, no less quickly than Briarcrest Christian School has forgotten the hundreds of children in neighborhoods where Michael came from.

I have good friends who started a small private school devoted to classical Christian education. Strangely, they refused to put the word “Christian” in the title of the school. When I asked, they explained that either they will live up to that title, meaning that they needn’t include it in the name, or else they won’t, in which case they dare not dishonor it. I think I see the wisdom in that point of view. Would that Briarcrest Christian School were simply “Briarcrest School.” Perhaps then the story of Michael Oher wouldn’t be so discouraging.