They Didn't Even Adopt Michael Oher, Inspiration for "The Blindside"

Or: I am Blindsided to know Michael Oher was never adopted

Michael Oher is a former NFL football player active from 2009 to 2016. Prior to his time with the NFL, he was a star player for the University of Mississippi. He is also known as the subject of the 2009 film “The Blindside.” The film raked in numerous awards, including for the co-star, Sandra Bullock, who took home both an Academy and Golden Globe award for Best Actress. The film follows a young 17-year-old Michael Oher, and his struggles as a child lost in the foster care system before being “Adopted” by the Tuohy’s, who show him the love of Football and later help him succeed in College Football. The film was based on a book by Michael Lewis, a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy.

On August 14th, 2023, Oher and his attorneys filed a motion (full motion here) to remove the Tuohys as his legal conservators, something until six months prior Michael didn’t realize meant they had complete control over his estate, likeness, and most importantly, ability to enter contracts. He was under the impression this was a way for them to adopt him while he was over the age of 18. He even claims so in his autobiographical book from 2004, “I Beat The Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond”:

“Since I was already over the age of eighteen and considered an adult by the state of Tennessee, Sean and Leigh Anne would be named as my 'legal conservators.' They explained to me that it means pretty much the exact same thing as 'adoptive parents,' but that the laws were just written in a way that took my age into account," Oher wrote in the book. "Honestly, I didn’t care what it was called. I was just happy that no one could argue that we weren’t legally what we already knew was real: We were a family.”

Michael is also seeking a full audit of the Tuohy’s finances to ensure he was adequately compensated for the decades of use of his name, likeness, and personal story, including any proceeds that haven’t been dispersed to him from the “The Blindside.” Something he likely wouldn’t have had to ask for if they had been abiding by the terms of a conservatorship, which requires conservators to file annual documents with Oher’s earnings. Something they allegedly have failed to do or “timely file a single accounting for the last 19 years.”

Tuohy Responses and Michael Lewis

In response to these new allegations and legal filings, the Tuohys and their attorneys told the Hollywood Reporter:

“When Michael Lewis, a friend of Sean’s since childhood, was approached about turning his book on Mr. Oher and the Tuohys into a movie about their family, his agents negotiated a deal where they received a small advance from the production company and a tiny percentage of net profits,” says Marty Singer, a lawyer for the family, in a statement issued on Tuesday. “They insisted that any money received be divided equally. And they have made good on that pledge.”

“The Tuohys say that they’ve given Oher an “an equal cut of every penny” received from The Blind Side. As part of his alleged extortion effort, he refused to accept his share of the money from the movie deal, the family claims. They say they still deposited the money into a trust account.

The issue with this response is it’s devoid of a response to the core of the problem here, which is they seem to imply the allegations are only about money. While in some parts they are, the filing has a relatively large dedication talking about how he was misled into what the Conservatorship meant and that they never disclosed to him that they had full control over his estate, including his ability to agree to contracts on his own.

Michael Lewis, a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy and the author of the book that served as the inspiration for the film, recently did an interview with The Washington Post:

“Everybody should be mad at the Hollywood studio system,” Lewis said. “Michael Oher should join the writers strike. It’s outrageous how Hollywood accounting works, but the money is not in the Tuohys’ pockets.”

“What I feel really sad about is I watched the whole thing up close,” Lewis said. “They showered him with resources and love. That he’s suspicious of them is breathtaking. The state of mind one has to be in to do that — I feel sad for him.”

His response seems to indicate a desire to defend his friend and pit Michael against Hollywood rather than the Tuohys, which, while deserving on the part of Hollywood, it’s again devoid of addressing the real heart of the issue here. Why was the Conservatorship conveyed to Michael as though it was a form of adoption, and why was he not made implicitly aware of what that Conservatorship entailed?

Watch me, watching you, watch this movie.

Somehow, through the miracle of wrong timing and competing priorities, I had never seen “The Blindside.” I knew it won Sandra Bullock a Golden Globe and an Oscar. But I had never sat down to watch it, and I had somehow not been spoiled on its plot points. Cut to 2021, a Mother’s Day tradition is that my Wife gets to fully control what we watch; this year in particular, she opted to watch some classics. She asked excitedly, “Have you watched this terribly racist movie?” I just looked puzzled. “No, but I am aware of it. Wait, it’s racist?”. So we buckled in for what is often referred to as one of her favorite moments of us together - Watching me, watch this movie.

I can only describe the journey I went on as a “unique experience.” Don’t get me wrong here; I loved this movie. But not for the reasons that won it an Academy Award. I loved it for just how perfectly it captures the myriad of problematic and racist tropes in Hollywood. How frustrated it made me at every turn. The “White Savior” of it all. How they paint EVERY single black person besides Michael as irredeemable and bad. They make sure you root for the Tuohys. Narratively, they want you to see them as doing this ultimate sacrifice. Taking in this poor, mentally handicapped(?) , traumatized black teenager and providing him with the loving family environment his drug-addled biological mother could never provide. Within the film, they claim that Michael had never been formally involved with Football before meeting the Tuohys and that this wholesome Christian white family showed him the glory of the game.

The entire film does its darndest to make the viewer see the twisted dichotomy of both the safe, warm, well-lit, and welcoming family environment of the Tuohy’s home and neighborhood with the broken down, gray, drug-addled, and dirty neighborhood where they find Michaels Ohers biological mother. Painting his mother as entirely at her wit’s end with addiction, giving a moment for Mrs. Tuohy to comfort her and tell her that her child will be safe with her.

Even when the movie tries to address moments of racism amongst white people, it’s used as a prop to make you sympathize with Leigh Anne. In a scene, Leigh Anne is out with her friends, and they bring up that she has opted to bring Michael into their home. One friend comments, “Is this some sort of white guilt? What would your daddy say?”…“but what about Collins? Aren’t you worried? Even just a little? He’s a boy, a large black boy. Sleeping under the same roof.” Sandra Bullocks’ character then delivers the line “shame on you,” pays the lunch tab, and leaves.

While a moment of “fighting” racism, it was immediately undercut with Leigh Anne still coming home and talking to her daughter about “feeling safe.” This implies that Michael, who has so far only been portrayed as docile and polite, would sexually assault his adoptive sister. Because he was black? Or because he was seen as a man? The movie clearly wanted to try and drum up extra points for showing how “not racist, actually” the Tuohys are. Instead, it showed us that she couldn’t even shake the notion of a stereotype being true. Sure, you could make the argument that she was realizing she never checked in with Collins about her comfort about the situation. Still, the framing is too implicit about the relationship between that lunch with friends and her conversation with her daughter.

Reality is often… disappointing.

Despite the depiction of the film, Michael Oher was never mentally disabled. He lacked a formal education of any meaning, but that wasn’t a deficiency in capability, simply one of opportunity. In the film, they also claim that Michael “scored poorly on his career aptitude test but ranked 98th percentile in “protective instincts.” It's a completely made-up assessment by the way.

According to the account laid out in the filing, Michael was fortunate enough to attend a more prestigious school based on his athletic acumen. He was floating from various friends’ houses while attending school; it wasn’t until he was 17 that he met the Tuoys, who occasionally offered him a place to stay in their home. It wasn’t until after he turned 18 that he was offered a formal invitation to their home permanently, where he almost immediately was given the paperwork that would be part of his Conservatorship.

The Tuohys went out of their way to mislead Michael into thinking it was part of his adoption to their family and explaining it as a way to accomplish adoption now that he was technically 18. More importantly, contrary to the depiction in the film, it was absolutely in order to get the NCAA investigation off of their backs. As they were being accused of being “boosters.”

Boosters; Described by the NCAA as “Employing relatives, guardians or friends of a prospect as an inducement for a prospect’s enrollment and athletics participation at a university.”

The movie, the book, and the newest accounts from Michael in the filing all seem to confirm the true goal. From their constant focus on their “relationship” with “Ole Miss” while also reaffirming to Michael just how good at Football he was and how lucky they would be to have him. The movie tries really hard to paint them as agnostic of choice. While subconsciously making a choice for him by constantly telling him how much of a part of the family he is while also saying how everyone from their family has gone to “Ole Miss.”

Whether or not the allegations from Michael Oher are true, my opinion of the Tuohy’s is that they engaged in blatant predatory behavior. They saw a homeless black child who was good at Football and used him to help their alma mater’s football team by inserting themselves as his “guardians”. They removed his autonomy to decide for himself by obtaining a somewhat questionable Conservatorship over him.

I’m not a lawyer nor do I pretend to have any understanding of the proceedings required to obtain a conservatorship. According to Tennessee law, in order to establish a court ordered Conservatorship you must provide “medical proof, such as physical or psychological evaluations, as well as lay witness testimony describing the individual’s inability to care for him or herself.” It would be interesting to find out what evidence was provided or what witness testimony shown to that preceding judge to make the irrefutable case that Michael was unfit to govern himself. Considering Michael has, so far, been perceived as a competent adult with both personal and professional success without the oversight of the Tuohys. That testimony or evidence would potentially contradict the narrative being told both in the book and the movie including in Michaels own recollection of the events leading up to his association with the family.

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