Well, this is far from a feel-good story. Michael Oher, the NFL player whose streets-to-success upbringing was depicted in 2009 sports drama The Blind Side, now says that the Tuohy family didn’t so much adopt him as exploit him, using an all-too-familiar tactic for those following celebrity news: a conservatorship.
In his petition to end the conservatorship, Oher also alleges that the Tuohy family received profits from the Academy Award–winning film but that he did not. Here’s what’s going on.
What happens in the movie?
The 2009 hit is based on Michael Lewis’s nonfiction book about the evolution of football and Oher’s life story. Lewis’s credibility as a writer-reporter so far hasn’t been questioned, but Lewis—who also wrote the book Moneyball is based on—went to prep school with Sean Tuohy, which is kind of an eyebrow raise. Like, maybe he didn’t get an unbiased version of the story? Anyway….
In the movie, feisty mom Leigh Anne Tuohy (Sandra Bullock) meets one of her son’s schoolmates, Michael, and learns that he has been in and out of foster care and is basically homeless due to his father’s death and mother’s substance abuse issues. He is a naturally talented football player but is struggling in school. She takes him into her home and hires him a tutor, and the whole family embraces him. She and her husband Sean (Tim McGraw) formally adopt Michael, and he’s offered a spot on the college team at Ole Miss, where the Tuohys went to school, prompting an investigation: Did they adopt him just so he could go play for their alma mater? The matter is settled and Michael does choose Ole Miss and ends up becoming an NFL player for the Baltimore Ravens.
The movie was nominated for best picture and Bullock won an Oscar for her work.
Was that considered accurate before now?
Like many biopics, the movie was considered a formulaic, simplified version of the truth. Many critics pointed out that it’s a bit of a white-savior story and relies on stereotypes, such as Michael having never had a bed before. The movie also portrayed the Tuohys as the reason Michael started playing football, though in reality he was already an athlete.
When the real Michael Oher got the chance to tell his own story in his 2011 memoir I Beat the Odds, he wrote, “I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of as a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it.”
“Quinton Aaron [the actor who played Oher in the film] did a great job acting the part, but I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football,” he continued. "Whether it was SJ moving around ketchup bottles or Leigh Anne explaining to me what blocking is about, I watched those scenes thinking, No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying—really studying—the game since I was a kid! That was my main hang-up with the film.” He also revealed that it was a different family that helped him get into private school where he eventually met the Tuohys, though, again, that’s the kind of simplification common in Hollywood.
Per ESPN, Oher’s book acknowledges that he was placed under a conservatorship by the Tuohys, but it seems Oher had been operating under a false understanding of what that arrangement meant in spirit and in practice. “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 at the time. According to his attorney, it wasn’t until February 2023 that the former football star, now 37, understood that this was not the case.
What is Oher saying now?
On August 14, 2023, Oher brought forth allegations that go far beyond putting a big-screen spin on an authentically inspiring story. For starters, Oher claims the Tuohys “tricked” him into signing conservatorship papers when he was 18 by telling him that it was functionally the same as adoption. However, if Oher had been a legal member of the family, he would have “retained power to handle his financial affairs,” per ESPN. Under the conservatorship, “Oher surrendered that authority to the Tuohys, even though he was a legal adult with no known physical or psychological disabilities.”
Oher's attorney adds that the family then profited from the lie that he had been adopted, intentionally misrepresenting themselves as his “adoptive” parents to the public. “Since at least August of 2004, Conservators have allowed Michael, specifically, and the public, generally, to believe that Conservators adopted Michael and have used that untruth to gain financial advantages for themselves and the foundations which they own or which they exercise control,” the petition says. “All monies made in said manner should in all conscience and equity be disgorged and paid over to the said ward, Michael Oher.”
The petition to dissolve the conservatorship also asks the court to issue an injunction barring the Tuohys from using Oher’s name and likeness.
Additionally, per People, the petition states that “all four members of the Tuohy family were paid $225,000 for the film plus 2.5% of the film’s proceeds,” but Oher got nothing. This detail from the filing, as reported by ESPN, has raised eyebrows: “The deal lists all four Tuohy family members as having the same representative at Creative Artists Agency…but Oher’s agent, who would receive movie contract and payment notices, is listed as Debra Branan, a close family friend of the Tuohys and the same lawyer who filed the 2004 conservatorship petition.”
This filing more or less rewrites the entire narrative, painting the Tuohys as a family that recruited a teenager who was reliant on others' help to make them money. “Where other parents of Michael’s classmates saw Michael simply as a nice kid in need, Conservators Sean Tuohy and Leigh Anne Tuohy saw something else: a gullible young man whose athletic talent could be exploited for their own benefit,” his attorney wrote.
In his second memoir, which came out this year, Oher writes, per ESPN, “There has been so much created from The Blind Side that I am grateful for, which is why you might find it as a shock that the experience surrounding the story has also been a large source of some of my deepest hurt and pain over the past 14 years. Beyond the details of the deal, the politics, and the money behind the book and movie, it was the principle of the choices some people made that cut me the deepest.”
What have the Tuohys said?
ESPN reports that in their book, the Tuohys say the money from the film deal was split “five ways.” Following Oher's legal suit, “dad” Sean Tuohy told the Daily Memphian, “We’re devastated. It’s upsetting to think we would make money off any of our children. But we’re going to love Michael at 37 just like we loved him at 16.”
Meanwhile, observers on the internet have taken a second look at the Tuohys' cameo on Bravo's Below Deck, where Sean described how the movie came about. “So I get a call from Steven Spielberg and Harvey Weinstein,” he says in the clip shared by TikTok creator Abigail Adams. “I had to give them the rights to use our name. And I said, ‘I'll give you the right to use the name if I get to read the script and approve it. Or unapprove it.’” Sean explains to Captain Lee that the script arrived in the mail one day.
On August 16, the Tuohys’ family attorney, Martin Singer, accused Oher of extorting the couple in a statement made to People. “[Oher's] response was to threaten [the Tuohys], including saying that he would plant a negative story about them in the press unless they paid him $15 million,” Singer alleged in the statement. Later, an anonymous source told People that Oher's allegation that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy had received millions from the movie was false. “They have not even received $1 million from the movie,” the source claimed.
What have producers said?
The production company that backed The Blind Side defended the film against “many mischaracterizations and uninformed opinions” in a statement issued to People.
Alcon Entertainment cofounders Broderick Johnson and Andrew Kosove claim Oher and the four members of the Tuohy family were collectively paid approximately $767,000 through their talent agency for The Blind Side. Payments for their life rights “was consistent with the marketplace at that time for the rights of relatively unknown individuals,” and therefore “did not include significant payouts in the event of the film’s success,” the statement clarified.
“As a result, the notion that the Tuohys were paid millions of dollars by Alcon to the detriment of Michael Oher is false,” the statement concluded.
The production company also noted that the film rights to author Michael Lewis’s 2006 book about Oher and the associated rights contracts were negotiated by Twentieth Century Fox, then inherited by Alcon when the film was green-lit.
What’s the Sandra Bullock backlash?
Since Oher filed his lawsuit, the Blind Side movie has come under renewed scrutiny and so have the film’s actors—particularly Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy. Some social media commenters have even called for the actor to return the award. But Quinton Aaron, who portrayed Oher in the movie, has already come to her defense. “Sandra Bullock didn't have anything to do with the real story that we’re reading as of right now,” Aaron told TMZ Sports on August 16. “She gave a brilliant performance. And that shouldn’t be tarnished for something that had nothing to do with her.”
This post will be updated.
Originally Appeared on Glamour