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Opinion: Michael Oher’s lawsuit against his “Blind Side” family raises urgent questions

Opinion by Jill Filipovic

(CNN) — It’s not exactly a Hollywood happy ending: Michael Oher, the former NFL player whose story was depicted in the 2009 film “The Blind Side,” says he was conned into agreeing to a conservatorship, believing he was going to be adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy — and that he never received fair payment for the movie portrayal of him.

The film, starring Sandra Bullock, who won an Academy Award for best actress for her performance of Leigh Anne Tuohy, is based on the 2006 book “The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game” by Michael Lewis. It tells the story of Oher’s life, though parts are fictionalized.

Oher has filed a petition in a Tennessee court to end the Tuohy’s conservatorship over him, and for a full accounting of any money that should have been paid to him.

The Tuohys, in response to the petition, described themselves as “heartbroken over these events” in a statement issued on their behalf by attorney Martin Singer. But they also alleged a “shakedown”:  that Oher demanded $15 million from them, and threatened to plant a negative press story if they didn’t pay up.

The couple said that they have always been upfront with Oher about the conservatorship and that any profit from “The Blind Side” has been split with him equally.

Oher, who was born to a mother struggling with substance abuse disorder and placed in foster care before his 11th birthday, became a ward of the state, and the Tuohys offered him a place to stay on occasion, according to his petition. When he turned 18, they invited him to live with them, and encouraged him to think of himself as one of their children, leading him to believe he was as good as an adopted son. And according to Oher, the Tuohys told him they would in fact adopt him. The Tuohys’ own book refers to “the Tuohy family’s adoption of Michael Oher” as “one of the most talked-about true stories of our time.”

According to the petition, when the Tuohys put papers in front of him to sign, Oher was led to believe they were related to his adoption: “Michael trusted the Tuohys and signed where they told him to sign. What he signed, however, and unknown to Michael until after February 2023, were not adoption papers, or the equivalent of adoption papers,” the petition says. Instead, according to the petition, the papers were for a legal conservatorship, giving the Tuohys power over Oher’s life, his story and the millions that came from it.

The Tuohys, the petition alleges, have profited handsomely from “The Blind Side.” The film grossed more than $330 million. (On Monday Sean Tuohy told the Daily Memphian, “We didn’t make any money off the movie. Well, Michael Lewis gave us half his share. Everybody in the family got an equal share, including Michael. It was about $14,000 each). Oher says he didn’t receive what he was fairly owed.

Oher’s hurt seems to stem from both what he alleges is financial exploitation, and from his apparent realization that he was not actually a legal member of the Tuohy family, as he says he believed. According to the filing, the Tuohys enriched themselves on the lie of Oher’s adoption. “Michael Oher discovered this lie to his chagrin and embarrassment in February of 2023, when he learned that the Conservatorship to which he consented on the basis that doing so would make him a member of the Tuohy family, in fact provided him no familial relationship with the Tuohys.”

The case is a complicated one, but Oher’s petition raises important questions about the protections — or lack thereof — for young people who are making legal agreements, without much in the way of guidance, that they may not fully understand. According to Oher’s petition, the conservatorship papers were filed by a lawyer with close personal ties to the Tuohy family. In another contract, the petition alleges, he signed away his name, likeness and voice to the studio that made “The Blind Side” “without any payment whatsoever.” Oher says, if he did sign the documents, he never received an explanation of what he was doing.

One does wonder why a conservatorship for a physically and mentally healthy adult was necessary in the first place — and why a court wouldn’t ask more questions, especially when the power imbalance was so clear.

Oher seems to have had no party representing him who was solely in his corner. While he was certainly mentally fit to make his own decisions, his background and age made him far less sophisticated than the Tuohys, who were much older, much wealthier and much more experienced. Whether the agreement was actually manipulative or not, the circumstances were prime ones for exploitation.

It’s also difficult to take Oher’s story out of the context of the abuses rife within Christian adoptive communities. In the last two decades, it has become trendy for  White Evangelical families to adopt children, often children of color and often children from poor countries, as part of a broader mission to spread God’s word. This Evangelical “crusade to create a culture of adoption” and engage in “orphan-care” has created multi-racial “rainbow congregations” around the country.

Evangelicals, according to this “orphan theology,” are called to spread the Gospel by adopting children. This both Christianizes the children and uses adoption as a way to create arrows for Christ — more people to spread the Gospel. And it has the added benefit of imbuing the adoptive families with a sense of charity and goodness; they are often applauded by their community members for having hearts big enough to take in poor, suffering orphans.

This has resulted in profound and widespread exploitation, from child abandonments to skirting travel restrictions and baby-stealing; many countries have cut off American adoptions because the wrongdoings were so pervasive. And some Evangelical adoptive families have come to regret their role in the whole system.

The Tuohys, although they did not actually adopt Oher, use similar language when they tell their story: According to the book jacket of the couple’s autobiography, Leigh Anne “decided early on that her mission was to raise children who would become ‘cheerful givers.’ Sean, who grew up poor, believed that one day he could provide a home that would be ‘a place of miracles.’ Together, they raised two remarkable children ― Collins and Sean Jr. ― who shared their deep Christian faith and their commitment to making a difference. And then one day Leigh Anne met a homeless African-American boy named Michael and decided that her family could be his. She and her husband taught Michael what this book teaches all of us: Everyone has a blind side, but a loving heart always sees a path toward true charity.”

It also claims that “Michael Oher’s improbable transformation could never have happened if Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy had not opened their hearts to him.”

Oher’s success in life, in other words, was made possible by the Tuohys, and they have used his story to promote themselves through the language of Christianity. According to their author bio, “The Tuohys live in Memphis but travel all over the country speaking to thousands of people about their family, their faith, and how each of us can make a difference.”

It’s a typical savior narrative, with eye-roll-inducing efforts at humility. “We often say that our son Michael gave us much more than we gave him,” the introduction to the book reads. “That confuses people: how is it possible that a homeless kid could give anything to wealthy parents who already had two perfect children?”

What Oher actually gave the Tuohys, he claims, is fame and wealth, without receiving what he was owed in return.

There is no doubt there is much more to this story than either this legal action or a Hollywood film can capture. What is clear from Oher’s story, though, is that our justice system is largely ill-equipped to address the kinds of profound power imbalances at play in his conservatorship.

Of course, this is a he-said-she-said, situation, and we don’t know what exactly happened between Oher and the Tuohys. But, however this story ends, Oher is surely not the first or last young person signing away important legal rights in negotiations they don’t understand. And beyond this specific story, there is another crucial lesson to consider: That the language of faith —and the concept of the powerful rescuing the vulnerable — can be used to hurt as much as to help, and for manipulation as much as salvation.

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