Michael Oher has spent much of his adult life protecting others, which is part of the job description when you’re an offensive lineman with the innate trait he displayed in the movie about his early life. But in suing the parents who took him in as a teen — and who he now says duped and exploited him for financial gain — he is looking out for himself. And it’s about time.
The whole wealthy White Southerners give a home and stability to the homeless, slow Black kid narrative has never sat well with me since Michael Lewis wrote it in his best-selling book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” which in 2009 was converted into a box-office smash that warmed the hearts of everyone but the person at the center of it: Oher.
The former first-round draft choice, who retired after the 2016 season, has consistently expressed his displeasure with the film, which received an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture and earned Sandra Bullock an Oscar for Best Actress. It made him appear mentally challenged, which should not come as a surprise considering the way Lewis spoke about him shortly after the book’s release.
While addressing a group at Google headquarters, Lewis was asked for an update on Oher, who was attending the University of Mississippi at the time. Lewis rolled his eyes and shook his head.
“He’s on the Dean’s List at Ole Miss,” he said, “which says a lot about the Dean’s List at Ole Miss.”
The movie industry loves to say a film is “based on a true story,” which really means “elements of this story are true, but we have the creative license to make up stuff if it will help to sell the project.” Both Hollywood and television — myth-makers, as I call them — have been selling for decades that Black people are in need of saving and White people are the ones to save them.
Another recent example is “The Help,” a wildly successful book whose film version garnered four Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actress. It focused on the lives of Black maids in a Mississippi town during the Civil Rights Era, and how a White woman turned the stories of their lives into a best-selling book. At no point was it said to be based on a “true story,” but the author, Kathryn Stockett, was sued by the longtime nanny of her brother’s family, Allene Cooper, who claimed the author had borrowed her likeness and life story without permission, then portrayed her in a way that Cooper considered to be humiliating and painful. Ultimately the case was dismissed because it exceeded the statute of limitations.
These types of stories are as old as Hollywood itself, with myth-makers using real and fictional stories of disadvantaged minorities for their own purposes. On Wednesday, I asked several friends to identify a movie or TV show in which a wealthy minority family took in an impoverished White child out of the goodness of their hearts. A reverse Diff’rent Strokes, if you will. They could not name one.
“You don’t have to be saved by a wealthy White family,” Oher said in 2011, two years after the release of the film when asked about children living in poverty. “You can do it on your own. It is possible.”
Tuohys intend to end conservatorship for Oher, lawyers say
That much is certain. Less clear is the veracity of the allegations being made by Oher, who on Monday filed a 14-page petition in Shelby County (Tennessee) probate court that accuses Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy of tricking him into signing conservatorship papers that gave them the legal authority to make business deals in his name. Oher, who was 18 at the time, claims he thought he was signing formal adoption papers. He also alleges he was not paid for “The Blind Side.”
His accusations are serious because conservators are supposed to be held to high standards. In short, they are appointed by courts to manage the financial and personal affairs of a minor or an adult with physical or intellectual disabilities. They have a fiduciary responsibility to the individual, known as a ward, and can face severe penalties for violating those duties.
The Tuohys have denied wrongdoing and said Wednesday they would file paperwork to end the conservatorship. While that’s a step in the right direction, their explanation for why a conservatorship was ever necessary remains suspect.
On Monday, Sean Tuohy told The Daily Memphian the family was attempting to avoid potential NCAA recruiting violations because, as a former Ole Miss basketball player, he could be classified as a university booster.
“Michael was obviously living with us for a long time, and the NCAA didn’t like that,” he is quoted as saying. “They said the only way Michael could go to Ole Miss was if he was actually part of the family.”
So why not adopt him? Tuohy told The Washington Post the process might take too long for Oher to be cleared to play at Mississippi. Again, suspicious. Some have speculated that it could involve inheritance issues, and the parents wanting to ensure that their wealth and assets went to their two biological children. If true, that easily could have been addressed in a living trust, which would specify where their assets would go.
If the conservatorship was indeed on the up and up, it’s curious that neither the Tuohys nor Lewis, a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy, ever mentioned the word in their respective books. The Tuohys did, however, mention adoption or make a reference to it at least 30 times in their 2010 book “Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving,” according to ESPN.
“The idea of adopting Michael came to us quite naturally,” they wrote. “One evening we told him that we wanted to formally become his guardians. It wasn’t an executive family session or anything. We were all just lounging around the dining table. … We felt adopting him would be a good idea.”
And yet, Oher says it wasn’t until this year that he realized the papers he signed in 2004 were a Petition for Appointment of Conservators instead of a document finalizing the adoption process.
Freeze: ‘Facts will come out’ in Oher-Tuohy dispute
A ton of questions remain. Was he duped? Did the Tuohys profit off his name? Did they shut him out or stand in the way of his receiving compensation for the movie rights (an allegation Lewis refuted this week)? And could their motives have been the selfish work of Ole Miss alums acting as boosters, as the movie plot suggested?
As it relates to money, there should be a paper trail that leads to the truth. Harder to discern is whether this is really about lost earnings or hurt feelings. Could it be that Oher was shocked to learn that he was never really adopted by the people he regularly called family? Maybe that pain cut deep enough for him to request $15 million from the Tuohys to keep the story out of the press, as the family attorney has alleged.
It’s too early to draw definitive conclusions without knowing all the facts, and the fact that these allegations are coming out now, some seven years after he retired, has some people looking at him sideways. The only thing I can say is Oher has been through a lot in his life and perhaps it has taken him this long to begin to process it. No one knows but him.
What we do know is that he’s now looking out for himself, and that should be viewed as a positive. He has spent enough time protecting others. Now it’s time to protect himself.
(Photo of Oher at SiriusXM Studios in New York last week: Roy Rochlin / Getty Images)