Throughout the 20th century, the University of Mississippi has had a major problem with civil rights: after James Meredith became the first black student enrolled at the school, for instance, there were riots on campus. From the football team’s perspective, Mississippi’s dismal record of racism was a major liability: the football team needed to attract talented black athletes to emerge victorious in its games.
One factor that Michael seems not to consider when deciding where to attend college is the long history of racism and discrimination at Ole Miss. Ole Miss is a mess of contradictions: it’s one of the most historically racist academic institutions in America, but it’s also a major football school, meaning that in the 21st century, it relies on the athleticism of predominately black athletes.
In many ways, the University of Mississippi was not a welcoming place for black students. Black football players stood out from other Ole Miss students, and not just because of their skin color. Many black football players, Lewis notes, didn’t speak or write standard English, though they went through the “tedious charade of pretending to be ordinary college students.” Most athletes ended up majoring in “Criminal Justice,” popular because it didn’t require math or language skills. At times, teachers and students at Ole Miss stared at black athletes with condescending looks “filtered by the past.”
The experience of the average college football player is, in many ways, tragic. Black football players at Ole Miss are treated like heroes on the field, even though they’re discriminated against at most other times. Additionally, many people have criticized the overly easy classes that college athletes are encouraged to take so that they can concentrate on athletics. One tragic result of such a system is that some athletes graduate with neither an NFL contract nor the academic skills necessary for success in life.
One of Coach Ed Orgeron’s first priorities is battling the perception that Ole Miss isn’t friendly to black people—indeed, he’s hired by Ole Miss largely because of his rapport with black athletes. Orgeron is interested in Michael from an athletic perspective, but also from a public relations perspective, since Michael lives with a white family, and his adopted sister belongs to “one of the snootiest white sororities on campus.”
The Ole Miss administration is well-aware of its race problems. However, the passage gives the impression that one of the administration’s primary motives for battling the perception that it’s a racist institution is to attract a good football team. Ole Miss, it’s implied, will use Michael as a pawn for its own PR purposes.
Coach Orgeron says on more than one occasion that he wants to build his new football team on the back of Michael Oher. He wants Michael to start for Ole Miss, even though he’s just a freshman. The assistant coach, George DeLeone, focuses on teaching Michael the plays, remembering what Sean had said about Michael being a visual learner. DeLeone is skeptical that Michael will thrive in his first year with Ole Miss, since he hasn’t spent time in the weight room, and isn’t aggressive by nature. While working with Michael one-on-one, DeLeone reaches a strange conclusion; “Michael Oher is without question one of the greatest athletes I have ever seen for a guy his size. But what we’re asking him to do is impossible to do.” DeLeone begins benching Michael so that he’ll have time to learn about the game. But Orgeron is angry with DeLeone for not using Michael more often.
The controversy over how best to use Michael in games is similar to the argument between Hugh Freeze and Tim Long during Michael’s high school career: once again, the question is whether to play Michael as often as possible (i.e., making Michael an indispensible part of his team) or to encourage Michael to develop more slowly (and, implicitly, allow the other Ole Miss players to grow as athletes, too). Orgeron wants to use Michael as often as possible—in part because he thinks that Michael can help the team win games, but, as we’ve seen, also partly because he wants to use Michael as a poster-boy for Ole Miss.
Lewis jumps ahead to the end of the season, when the players are preparing for their game the next day. By this point, Michael Oher has acquired a swagger—he’s been featured in Sports Illustrated. Coach Orgeron tries to energize his players. Lately, Orgeron has been trying to acquire a good offensive lineup—he even tried to recruit Tulane players after they came to Mississippi following Hurricane Katrina—a tactic that made him wildly unpopular. Orgeron knows that his team has some of the worst offense in college football. They’re about to face off against Mississippi State, in a game known as the Egg Bowl.
It’s no wonder that Michael becomes more confident, and even arrogant, during his time at Ole Miss: he’s the star of a football team which is itself a star of Ole Miss campus culture. Orgeron, contrary to what Michael seemed to think during the recruitment process, isn’t such a decent, moral person—he’s so focused on football that he’s willing to exploit a natural disaster for his own ends. Orgeron is desperate because even with Michael, his team isn’t strong.
In the past year, Michael has adjusted to his new life in the University of Mississippi. He’s learned that Ole Miss has fraternities that don’t accept black students, and that most everyone at the school drinks heavily. However, Sue Mitchell is still his tutor, and Sean and Leigh Anne have built a second house for themselves, less than a mile from campus. Michael has made friends with other students, some white, some black.
Even though he’s respected for his football talent, Michael continues to feel like an outsider. As a result, he continues to rely heavily on his adopted family for love and emotional support—suggesting, perhaps, that he has yet to “come of age” and become a mature, confident young man off the field.
Coach DeLeone greets his players, and thanks them for their hard work. He asks the team to give him just one game of good offense. Michael nods—all season long, he’s been playing right guard. Some of the time, Michael doesn’t know what the play is, or who he’s supposed to block. Still, he’s become more confident on the field, and puts untold hours into his football playing—far more than he puts into his classes.
Michael has a lot to learn on the football field. In spite of his size and agility, he needs to improve as a strategic player, so that he can understand his coaches’ plays and make himself as useful as possible. He’s no longer on the Briarcrest team, where he could run Gap play after play.
Coach Orgeron gathers his players around him and energizes them for the game tomorrow. He emphasizes the rivalry between Mississippi State and Ole Miss, and encourages the team to fight for a win. Lewis notes the tension in the room: Coach Orgeron is the only white person there. On the field, Lewis notes, the black athletes for Ole Miss become “honorary white people,” but afterward, they return to being treated differently from white students.
Even after Michael wins acclaim from his peers, he continues to feel like an outsider—and, in no small part, this is because he’s a black student at one of the most historically prejudiced colleges in America. To this day, the book implies, black students are discriminated against at Ole Miss, in spite of their status as elite athletes.
The next morning, the Ole Miss team travels out to Starkville for the game, which ends disappointingly. Ole Miss starts out strong, but then the team gets into trouble: the Ole Miss quarterback keeps getting blitzed by Mississippi state, and soon Mississippi State leads 21 to 7. It is becoming clear that Ole Miss lacks a coach with the genius of Bill Walsh—someone who can maximize the players potential. The players grow increasingly disorganized and unsure, and DeLeone radios Michael to try harder. But even if Michael’s performance in the game—and during his entire freshman year—isn’t especially great, it’s not the end of the world. He’s getting useful experience, meaning that he’ll be better next year. Furthermore, Ole Miss needs Michael far more than Michael needs Ole Miss.
Michael is a talented player, one of the best in Division I, but he’s only one player on the Ole Miss team. Indeed, the Ole Miss team’s lack of success during Michael’s freshman season reminds us that football is a team sport, meaning that no single athlete, no matter how talented, can lead his team to victory. Furthermore, as Bill Walsh proved with the 49ers, great teams aren’t defined solely by their players, but also by the ingenuity and creativity of their coaches—evidently, Ed Orgeron is no Bill Walsh.
The day after their loss to Mississippi State, Coach Orgeron moves Michael Oher to play left tackle. Orgeron also uses Michael’s prestige to recruit other great players for the Ole Miss team’s upcoming season. At the end of the season, Michael is named a First Team Freshman All-American. Invigorated by this encouragement, Michael plays even harder, hitting the weight room and losing twenty-five pounds of fat.
Michael responds well to encouragement, putting in longer hours at the gym to improve his performance on the field. Also, notice that Orgeron’s public relations maneuvers seem to be paying off: great football players (presumably many of whom are black, and might otherwise have been reluctant to attend Ole Miss) join Orgeron’s team because they admire Michael.
In spite of his new success, Michael Oher continues to feel lonely and insecure about his family. He goes to visit Denise, but when he arrives, he finds the police arresting his mother for driving a stolen car. For unclear reasons, the police also arrest Michael; Sean guesses that they do so because of racism, pure and simple. Even when he’s at Ole Miss, Michael feels the influence of his old neighborhood. His three closest friends hail from poor black neighborhoods, do poorly in their classes, and have children. Sue Mitchell tutors one of Michael’s friends, Peria Jerry, and encourages him to improve his reading skills. For Thanksgiving, Michael invites a friend, another freshman football player who comes from a similar background, to dinner with the Tuohys.
Michael continues to face discrimination because of his race and his big, intimidating appearance. Furthermore, he’s constantly reminded of the experiential gap between black Ole Miss athletes, some of whom come from impoverished families, and white Ole Miss students, many of whom come from affluent Southern families. Even though Michael has been adopted by a wealthy white Southern family, Michael doesn’t feel that he fits in at Ole Miss. However, he bonds with other students with a background similar to his own.
One day, toward the end of freshman year, Michael clashes with a freshman linebacker named Antonio Turner. Antonio boasts that he’d like to have sex with Leigh Anne and Collins. Michael threatens to hit Antonio; Antonio flees to another building, and Michael follows him, and then beats him senseless. Afterwards, Michael sees a little boy—the three-year-old son of a college tutor—lying on the floor in a pool of blood. Somehow, in the fight, the boy has been injured. Michael runs away, and nobody knows where he’s gone. Panicked, the coaches phone Leigh Anne and tell her that she needs to get down to Ole Miss as soon as possible—she’s the only one who can help Michael. Leigh Anne starts to drive out to Ole Miss, but then realizes she has no idea where to look for Michael.
On one hand, Michael’s violent clash with Turner proves that he’s fiercely loyal to his adopted family, and is willing to fight for their honor. At the same time, however, the clash emphasizes Michael’s immaturity and his outsider status at Ole Miss: where other students might settle their arguments with words, Michael settles his argument with Turner in an ugly, immature way—by beating up Turner and, more tragically, accidentally hurting a little boy. Leigh Anne’s realization that she has no idea where to look for Michael symbolizes the general disconnect between Michael and the Tuohys—even after all their time together, they don’t fully understand one another’s perspectives.
Leigh Anne tells Sean what’s happened. Sean is reminded of an incident that happened shortly after Michael left for Ole Miss: Michael had an argument with Sue Mitchell, and left for two days. During that time, he didn’t contact anyone, and the Tuohys wondered if they’d hear from him again. Sean also knows that Michael had been running for his entire life. When he was a child, he’d been sent to various foster homes, and had run away from more than one of them. Michael ran so often when he was a child that, after a certain point, the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services stopped keeping track of him.
Evidently, Michael’s clash with Turner is indicative of a broader problem in Michael’s life—his alienation from the people around him, even those who love him. Without forgiving or excusing Michael for hurting a little boy, it’s possible to sympathize with the way he handles his problems—Michael has had so few healthy relationships in his life that he doesn’t know what to do when he’s angry. In the confusion, Michael’s first response is often to fight, or to run, or both.