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Porto: Bridging Cultural Divides

11/19/09 5:55PM By Brian Porto
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(HOST) Commentator Brian Porto has been thinking about bridges, sports and cultural divides.

(PORTO) Sports are no better or worse than American society generally; rather, sports reflect both the good and the bad about this country. The life of Baltimore Ravens rookie tackle Michael Oher, which is the subject of a best-selling book and a new movie, supports that observation.

Both the book and the movie are titled, "The Blind Side," a reference to the left side of a right-handed quarterback. Most pro quarterbacks are right-handed, so they are vulnerable to injury when hit from the left, or blind, side while trying to pass because they cannot elude a tackler they cannot see. Because vicious blind-side hits have sidelined many quarterbacks, ruining their teams' chances for a successful season, the left tackle, who protects a right-handed quarterback's blind side, has become one of the most important players in professional sports. The ideal left tackle is massive, with long arms and thick legs, but quickness and agility that belie his bulk. The rarity of such traits and their importance to keeping quarterbacks healthy explains why left tackles are among the highest-paid players in professional football.

Michael Oher possesses this unlikely combination of physical traits, enabling him to earn All-American honors at the University of Mississippi and prompting the Ravens to select him in the 2009 NFL draft. Those traits have liberated Michael from a grim Memphis ghetto, neglectful parents, and frequent homelessness, and they will allow him to enjoy a deluxe version of the American Dream.

But neither Michael's athletic skills nor his rise from poverty account for the book or the movie about his life. Instead, Michael's life is interesting and inspiring because as a teenager, despite being a poor African American whose contact with whites had been minimal, he accepted the help and, gradually, the love and support of Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy white couple with a keen interest in sports and an uncanny ability to communicate with teenagers. Eventually, Michael became the Tuohys' adopted son.

The Tuohys' stable home life gave Michael structure and discipline for the first time, enabling him to enjoy accomplishments that many teenagers take for granted, like obtaining a driver's license, graduating from high school, and attending college. And his natural athletic ability, combined with competent coaching, allowed him to develop into one of the premier high school football players in America by his senior year.

Michael Oher's athletic journey is a window on both the socioeconomic inequality and the enormous opportunities for upward mobility that characterize the United States. But for me, the most important lesson of Michael's life is that good things happen when people leave their comfort zones to offer and accept help. The Tuohys' use of sport to bridge the cultural divide between Michael and themselves and Michael's willingness to cross that bridge richly deserve the attention they are currently receiving.
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