The 2009 Academy-award nominated film, Blind Side, is an engrossing fact-based story that won Sandra Bullock an Oscar. I watched it twice and enjoyed the movie both times. Too bad so many facts were lost in telling the story of football phenomenon Michael Oher and his relationship with Sean and Leigh Anne Tuoy, the Memphis, Tennessee couple who became his foster parents and later adopted him.
Blind Side is a great story, but it could have told a better story about the potential of circumventing rules of the National Association of College Athletics in recruiting high school sports prodigies to Division 1-A athletic programs. In Oher’s case, he ended up at the University of Mississippi where Sean Tuoy was an all-star basketball player and Leigh Ann a cheerleader.
I have no doubt that the Tuoys are good Christian folks whose motives for adopting Oher were altruistic—at least in part. The over-sized, scholastically under-achieving African-American was the son of an impoverished crack-addicted mother of twelve children. The Tuoys were an affluent white family with two children enrolled in the same private school as Michael Oher. His athletic prowess paid tuition.
Michael’s adoptive father, wealthy owner of dozens of fast food franchises, was still a jock at heart two decades after graduating from Ole Miss. But he participated from the sidelines instead of on the court. Sean Tuoy is a veteran broadcaster for the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies and other sports teams—including his beloved University of Mississippi Rebels. And although altruism was certainly a factor in the couple’s decision to adopt Michael, let’s be real—an attitude expressed by the NCAA after the giant of a boy prospect decided to attend Ole Miss on a football scholarship.
The NCAA investigation of Michael Oher’s relationship with the Tuoy family failed to prove any rules violations. Still, there were suspicions that the adoptive parents had ulterior motives for making him a member of the family. Especially when Michael’s high school coach later became an Ole Miss assistant football coach.
Michael is now a multimillionaire offensive tackle with the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens and he is understandably grateful to the Tuoys. I don’t mean to disparage an inspirational story. It is what it is. But the 2012 “March Madness” basketball farce reminded me that major college sports are big business and so-called student-athletes are, in fact, athlete-students enrolled in their respective universities by hook or crook. Maybe even adoption.
The Kentucky Wildcats national basketball championship this year suggests that altruism doesn’t always enter into the picture in head coach John Calipari’s recruitment of “athlete students.” His players are here today, gone in the NBA’s draft soon after. Calipari’s entire starting five and a couple of reserves—a combination of “one-and-done” freshmen and two-year sophomore stars—will now go pro. So much for higher education. Kentucky’s championship team will be replaced by an incoming class of recruits, all focused on making brief stops on a college campus before heading to the NBA. Hopefully.
Calipari makes no bones about it. His sales pitch is play for me and your future is assured. Plenty of bling is on the horizon for his recruits. And quickly. Like many other colleges, the University of Kentucky turns a blind eye to the hypocrisy of Division 1-A athletics. After all, championship teams earn the schools millions of dollars from television and other sources, including rich alumni who make generous contributions in return for bragging rights on the “Big Blue.”
What is amazing about all the hypocrisy surrounding major college sports is the shelf life of abuses. For a half-century, critics have complained about the system that places dollars before the welfare of students. I produced and reported my first investigative documentary on the exploitation of college athletes three decades ago in Baton Rouge—an exposé focusing on the LSU sports program. My report disclosed how NCAA rules encourage, rather than discourage, cheating by young athletes. Ten years later, I repeated myself on CNN, expanding the investigation to a national perspective.
Before and since my reports, there have been a flock of investigations and commentaries encompassing the same territory. But nothing ever changes. Or more accurately, the changes are so incremental that they fail to reform the system.
My good friend Dale Brown, who coached LSU’s basketball team in two final four appearances during his 25-year career leading the Tigers, is among the most outspoken critics of the NCAA illusion of “student athletes.” He is an advocate of leading athletes not into temptation, but delivering them from the temptations of boosters and potential sports agents who prey on players by giving them cash, cars, clothing and other bounty in violation of NCAA rules. Brown believes a compensation system that paid athletes a nominal monthly stipend would help them resist the lure of easy money and other perks.
The NCAA is working on changes, but meaningful change is a long time in coming. And regardless of what happens, there will always be temptations. Professional sports is the road to wealth for everybody from players to coaches to leeches who take advantage of the present system. Nearly every athlete pursues the goal of a rich and rewarding professional career—particularly the young men like Michael Oher who come from extreme poverty.
The real solution, perhaps, is to allow athletic prodigies to experience wealth prior to entering college by arranging for the most impoverished to be adopted by rich alumni.
My memoir, Odyssey of a Derelict Gunslinger: A Saga of Exposing TV Preachers, Corrupt Politicians, Right-Wing Lunatics…and Me is available at amazon.com, soft-cover or Kindle and at independent bookstores like the Cottonwood in Baton Rouge. It offers $19.99 worth of laughs and much more. The book is an account of my illustrious (I choose the adjectives) investigative reporting career. email@example.com.