Sep 25, 2006 7:07 pm


Sunday's New York Times Magazine"The Ballad of Big Mike" offered a fascinating account of efforts to help a deeply disadvantaged young athlete, Michael Oher of Memphis, to get into college and thereby pursue a lucrative career in the NFL. Although in this rather dispassionately told tale, those who do so much to help Michael don't come across as terribly conflicted, the story strikes me as a classic example of how even a genuine impulse to do something good can sometimes lead us to do something that's not quite right. Here's an excerpt:

His senior year he made all A’s and B’s. It nearly killed him, but he did it. The Briarcrest academic marathon, in which Michael started out a distant last and had instantly fallen farther behind, came to a surprising end: in a class of 157 students, he finished 154th. He had caught up to and passed three of his classmates. When[former Ole Miss basketballer] Sean [Tuohy] saw the final report card, he turned to Michael with a straight face and said, “You didn’t lose; you just ran out of time.”

He had had a truly bizarre academic career: nothing but D’s and F’s until the end of his junior year, when all of a sudden he became a reliable member of Briarcrest’s honor roll. He was going to finish with a grade-point average of 2.05. Amazing as that was, however, it wasn’t enough to get him past the N.C.A.A. He needed a 2.65. And with no more classes to take, he obviously would not get it.

Now it was Sean’s turn to intervene.

From a friend, Sean learned about the Internet courses offered by Brigham Young University. The B.Y.U. courses had magical properties: a grade took a mere 10 days to obtain and could be used to replace a grade from an entire semester on a high-school transcript. Pick the courses shrewdly and work quickly, and the most tawdry academic record could be renovated in a single summer. Sean scanned the B.Y.U. catalog and found a promising series. It was called “Character Education.” All you had to do in such a “character course” was to read a few brief passages from famous works — a speech by Lou Gehrig here, a letter by Abraham Lincoln there — and then answer five questions about it. How hard could it be? The A’s earned from character courses could be used to replace F’s earned in high-school English classes. And Michael never needed to leave the house!

Thus began the great Mormon grade-grab. Mainly it involved [advisor]Sue Mitchell grinding through the character courses with Michael. Every week or so, they replaced a Memphis public school F with an A from B.Y.U. Every assignment needed to be read aloud and decoded. Here he was, late in his senior year in high school, and he had never heard of a right angle or the Civil War or “I Love Lucy.” But getting the grades was far easier than generating in Michael any sort of pleasure in learning. When Briarcrest gave him a list of choices of books to write a report on, Mitchell, thinking it might spark Michael’s interest, picked “Great Expectations.” “Because of the character of Pip,” she says. “He was poor and an orphan. And someone sort of found him. I just thought Michael might be able to relate.” He couldn’t. She tried “Pygmalion.” Again, he hadn’t the faintest interest in the thing. They got through it by performing the work aloud, with Michael assigned to the role of Freddie. “He does wonderful memory work,” Mitchell says. “It’s a survival technique. You can give him anything, and he’ll memorize it.” But that’s all he did. Engaging with the material in any deeper way seemed impossible. He was as isolated from the great works of Western literature as he was from other people. “If you asked him why we’re doing all this,” she says, “he’d say, ‘I got to do it to get to the [National Football] league.”’

As the article indicates, with a tremendous amount of love and support, Michael accomplished a great deal. However, although he and those who helped him deserve tremendous credit, when he faced the final obstacle to his admission to the University of Mississippi, instead of overcoming it, he was not only allowed to but encouraged to go around it. One might well argue that the final verdict in the case lies in Michael's classroom performance at Ole Miss. However, continuing evidence of widespread willingness to help college athletes beat the academic system surely justify concerns that Michael may get through college the same way he got in.

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