The Blind Side

A few weeks ago Malcolm Gladwell posted a review of The Blind Side, the latest book by Michael Lewis. Lewis has written several wonderful books, but is perhaps most famous – at least among sports economists — for Moneyball, the story of the improbable success of the Oakland A’s.

The latest offering from Lewis focuses on football. Specifically, the increasing importance of the offensive tackle. Okay, let’s be real specific. Lewis focuses this book on the rise of the left offensive tackle, or the player charged with protecting the blind side of NFL’s quarterbacks (who for the most part are right handed).

Lewis actually weaves together two stories in The Blind Side. The first story is about the importance of left tackles. As Lewis notes “ By the 2004 NFL season, the average NFL left tackle salary was $5.5 million a year, and the left tackle had become the second highest paid position on the field.”

Why are these players paid so well? Because the highest paid player is the quarterback, and a defensive end hitting these players from the blind side can end a signal caller’s career. And if that happens, teams not only lose a great deal of money, but coaches and general managers can lose their jobs. The job of the left tackle is to stop the sack artists employed in the NFL, and ultimately, reduce the likelihood that a quarterback will perform badly or be taken out of action.

But the importance of the job is not the only issue. The dimensions of a left tackle are scarce, and as students learn in economics, scarcity tends to increase value. Why are quality left tackles scarce? Not only must the player be big – 300 pounds is a minimum weight requirement – but also agile. If you eat enough you can get big. But to maintain athletic ability when you add size, that is a trick few people can pull off. And those few that do – Orlando Pace, Jonathan Ogden, Walter Jones, Willie Roaf, Michael Oher – get paid, or will get paid, quite well.

NFL fans might know the names of Pace, Ogden, Jones, and Roaf. The story of Oher is the other tale Lewis tells. Oher is currently a sophomore at the University of Mississippi. As his bio indicates, Oher is 6’6” and weighs more than 300 pounds. He is also is considered an incredible athlete. It is his rise from extreme poverty in Memphis to prized college football recruit that truly makes The Blind Side a compelling read.

In Gladwell’s comment on this book he made the following observation about Lewis: “I’m not sure how to describe (Lewis), which is part of the genius of his books. It’s not even clear to me that his books are about sports in the end, even though he takes sports as his subject.”

My sense is that Lewis is much like a sports economist. Lewis sees markets in everything. For example, the rise of the passing game in the NFL is described in The Blind Side in terms of market returns. Now if Lewis simply wrote about markets – when they work and when they fail – it might be interesting for some people (like economists), but perhaps not compelling reading for many. By using sports as his canvas, though, Lewis can paint a picture about the wonder of markets without his readers always knowing that this is the story being told.

And that is the essence of sports economics. The field of sports economics is not about sports, but economics. When we conduct our research and teach this class, it is the story of economics that we are really trying to tell. Sports are just a medium we use to convey our message.

Like Moneyball, one expects the latest from Lewis to further inspire sports economists. For example, if the story Lewis tells about left tackles is true, then one would expect left handed quarterbacks to perform worse than right handed signal callers. Because right tackles are less skilled, left handed quarterbacks should be less protected and therefore less able to produce. One wonders if this is true. Well, I went looking for a list of left handed quarterbacks but was unsuccessful (okay, I only tried for two minutes). Perhaps if someone could send me a list of left-handed quarterbacks in the NFL, then maybe I can provide a first glimpse into the answer.

- DJ

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