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Athletes as Role Models: Michael Oher

Michael Oher at Baltimore Ravens Training Camp...

Michael Oher at Baltimore Ravens Training Camp August 5, 2009 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Whenever a sports scandal erupts – Barry Bonds’s perjury, Kobe Bryant’s alleged rape – and people start shouting that it’s practically a crime against children who look to athletes as role models, I get mad – or at least I used to. Why, I shout back, must a ball player be a paragon of virtue off the field? Why does he owe it to kids? It’s a helluva responsibility to lay on a guy who just wants to bat a ball, or throw it through a basket, or run umpteen yards with it. Something about this seemed very wrong to me. Besides laying a trip on athletes, it comes from an assumption that performing well in a game is something kids should aspire to, rather than looking up to, say, firefighters, great thinkers, or their own hard-working parents.

The other day, though, I heard an interview with Michael Oher, the football player on whose life The Blind Side was based, and it turned my head around so fast I got whiplash. Oher told Terry Gross on Fresh Air that at the age of seven (7!) he decided he didn’t want to live the way his parents and his friends in the projects did: he wanted out. That a seven-year-old could know this is astonishing, and Gross asked just how he’d come to that conclusion so early on. Oher’s answer consisted of two words: Michael Jordan.

The one thing that kids from almost all backgrounds can access is sports — that is, televised sports. Little Michael Oher watched basketball, saw a young man named Michael Jordan play incredibly well, and became inspired, not to play ball himself; that came later. Jordan inspired him to change the direction of his life.

Remarkably for a seven-year-old, Michael Oher saw beyond Jordan’s athleticism: he understood his character. He saw the hard work, the persistence, the grace of Jordan on the court, and somehow, on a visceral level, he grokked the essence of a good man. (Grok: to understand intuitively–from Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land.)

Oher’s mother was a crack addict, his father seldom around. Most of the kids he grew up with unthinkingly

followed the well-worn clichéd path involving drugs, gangs, and violence. As Oher says, “The odds against me were almost prohibitive”considering the statistics. These were brought home to him when he did research for his recently released book, I Beat the Odds, written with Dan Jaeger.

Writing a book after the movie is an unusual thing to do. Oher had no literary aspirations, but the movie generated so many letters from kids, he felt obliged to write his story. Just as Michael Jordan was his role model, kids today are turning to Michael Oher as their role model.

Because of Michael Oher, the idea of athletes serving as role models has begun to make more sense to me. Athletes can show kids whose lives are devoid of positive adult role models that some people live differently, that health and pride and glory are all possible, and – though Oher did not mention race – that a black man can reach heretofore unimaginable heights.

I haven’t totally changed my opinion about the way our culture elevates ball players into heroes while ignoring the heroes who teach, take care of children, or drive an ambulance. But because of Michael Oher, I get it that sports figures stand in as role models for kids who really need them. I’m beginning now to grok it.


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