A destitute black teenager moves in with a rich white family, takes up football, boosts his grades and becomes a star NFL offensive lineman. There’s a reason The Blind Side was a best-selling book and a monster box-office hit — the tale of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family sounds like it was drummed up in a Hollywood story meeting. The remarkable thing about The Blind Side, though, isn’t that it’s based on a true story. It’s that the real Michael Oher is not unique.
n 2009, a few years after Oher left his adoptive home in Memphis, the local paper profiled another of the city’s top football prospects. The 315-pound O.C. Brown, the story explained, had a chance to earn a college scholarship but was struggling in school. The solution: The African-American football star left his grandmother’s place and moved into the 7,000-square-foot home of one of his white football coaches. The plan worked — Brown is now an offensive lineman at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he’s the subject of an upcoming documentary.
If we’re so charmed and fascinated by these Blind Side stories—and if newspaper editors are so taken with assigning them—then why has no one noticed how common they are? Aside from that brief note in Sports Illustrated acknowledging that three other NFL players have a similar background as Michael Oher, I haven’t found a press account that aggregates the many cases of cross-racial athletic adoption.
Perhaps the answer has to do with journalistic motivation. Human-interest stories either try to convince us that their subjects are unique or that they’re exemplars of some growing trend. With regard to marketing, it’s not in a writer’s interest to argue that his story falls somewhere in the middle—a kind of uncommon phenomenon that’s not altogether rare.
There’s also a natural tendency to think that if something seems improbable, it must be exceptional.