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Journalismism

The Tuohy Family’s Side Of The Story Has A Giant Hole At The Center

Michael Oher #74 of the Ole Miss Rebels stands with his family during senior ceremonies prior to a game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Matthew Sharpe/Getty Images

On Monday former NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher, subject of the 2006 Michael Lewis book The Blind Side and its 2009 film adaptation, went public with a 16-page court petition, accusing the Tuohy family—depicted in book and film as having opened their home to the former foster child—of tricking him into a conservatorship that gave them control over his name and story rights under the phony pretense of adopting him into their family.

Amid the controversy and the heavy media scrutiny brought about by Oher's allegations, the Tuohy family, through their lawyer Marty Singer, has responded. According to Singer, this is merely a shakedown for millions of dollars that the family never even received from the movie. "The notion that a couple worth hundreds of millions of dollars would connive to withhold a few thousand dollars in profit participation payments from anyone—let alone from someone they loved as a son—defies belief," Singer says in his statement.

According to Singer, the conservatorship was simply "established to assist with Mr. Oher’s needs, ranging from getting him health insurance and obtaining a driver’s license to helping with college admissions." Through Singer the Tuohys claim that Oher was free to exit the conservatorship at anytime, and that "the Tuohys will never oppose it in any way." Singer claims that the Tuohys have given Oher an equal cut of every dime they've ever received from The Blind Side, and that Oher has attempted this suit "several times before." Singer calls it a "cynical attempt to drum up attention in the middle of his latest book tour." He also says that the Tuohys are heartbroken over it but hope to reconcile with Oher soon.

Some of these claims now have the support of Michael Lewis, who in addition to authoring the book on which the film is based is also a close family friend of the Tuohys. Lewis told the Washington Post, in an interview published on Tuesday, that none of the story's principals made very much money off the film. "Everybody should be mad at the Hollywood studio system," he told the Post.

Lewis wrote The Blind Side after his childhood friend Sean Tuohy relayed Oher's story to him. When 20th Century Fox first optioned the story, the studio paid $250,000 for the rights to make the movie; Lewis said that he shared this 50-50 with the Tuohys, and that the Tuohys told him they would split it equally among the family. When Fox later dropped the idea, the production was then picked up by Alcon, a small production company backed by FedEx CEO Fred Smith, who just happened to be the Tuohys' neighbor. In that deal Lewis and the Tuohys were given a deal to share in the film's profits, but according to Lewis that deal paid out far less than they'd expected, despite the movie raking in hundreds of millions at the box office.

Lewis said that ultimately after agent fees and taxes, he and the Tuohy family received around $350,000 each from the profits of the movie. Lewis said the Tuohys planned to share the royalties among the family members, including Oher, but Oher began declining his royalty checks, Lewis said. Lewis said he believed the Tuohy family had deposited Oher’s share in a trust fund for Oher’s son.

Washington Post

“They showered him with resources and love," Lewis tells the Post. "That he’s suspicious of them is breathtaking."

Lewis may well be telling the truth, as far as he knows it, but a he-said-she-said fight over dollar amounts misses the central question: Was a conservatorship truly necessary, as the Tuohys portrayed it to Oher? As Oher detailed in his 2011 memoir, I Beat the Odds, the conservatorship was explained to him as "pretty much the same thing" as adoption—it isn't—and the Tuohys told him it was necessitated by his age at the time (18, legally an adult). That's also false: Adult adoption is legal and available in Tennessee. That isn't all that's odd about the arrangement.

Tennessee law reserves conservatorships for people with mental or physical disabilities who lack the capacity to make decisions for themselves, said Barbara Moss, an attorney in the state who is experienced in conservatorships.

“You have to have a doctor say you have a mental or physical disability in whole or in part,” Moss said. From an outside legal perspective, she said, the arrangement with Oher and the Tuohys was “bizarre.” “I’ve never seen something like that happen,” she said. “From what I know of Michael Oher … he wouldn’t have qualified.”

Washington Post

It is very easy to believe that a movie studio would seek, and find, a way to rip off people who'd signed their story over to be adapted into a film. It would not be surprising at all to learn that the Tuohys are being more-or-less completely forthright about how much money they've received in profit shares and royalty payments. All of that is somewhat beside the point.

This story isn't just, or mainly, about money, though. It's about a lie. It's about whether the Tuohys assured Oher—at the time an 18-year-old who'd been in and out of foster care and homelessness since he was 7—that his conservatorship was the same as an adoption, or the closest thing to adoption they could give him, and it's about why they'd do that. It's hard bordering on impossible to believe that the Tuohys, a successful and wealthy family, could have gotten all the way through the conservatorship process without learning that it isn't remotely the same thing as adoption.

The thing about racism is it drives you insane. The smallest kernel of doubt can infect the whole wiring in your brain. When Michael Oher saw his depiction in The Blind Side—as a helpless idiot, more or less, sled-hauled to stability by a family of white saviors—he was troubled and disgusted, and that seed of doubt about his real relationship to the Tuohys was more than enough to bring things to this point. So whether or not any lawyer will be able to prove that there's millions of dollars unaccounted for from the movie, there's no way to erase the lie at the center, or the deeper truth it reveals.

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