It’s been almost 15 years since the release of the movie The Blind Side. The 2009 film was a box office hit. It was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars. It won Best Actress. And it’s based on the life of former NFL star Michael Oher—an “inspirational true story.”
“His dad dies when he’s young. His mother has a drug abuse problem. And he’s bouncing from place to place,” said Santul Nerkar, who covers sports and business for the New York Times. In the past week, he has dutifully rewatched the movie and reread the book that the film is based on. “And the story of The Blind Side is that this white family, the Tuohys, they see him. They take him in. They give him a place to stay. It’s a wealthy white family that takes in a struggling poor young black man, and then that young black man uses his athletic talents to get to college and get to the pros.”
Even though The Blind Side was a commercial success, there were plenty of people who found the movie to be totally cringeworthy. Nearly 15 years later, it may be even more so. “The way that that movie reads now to a lot of us is sort of a tidy narrative that ignores a lot of the underlying and troubling racial dynamics of the movie,” Nerkar said. “Michael Oher’s story is very much told in terms of the characters around him, most of whom are white”
The film in general, it’s a football story, but it’s just as much a story about a family. And now there’s another chapter to this story with Michael Oher taking the people he’s considered his parents to court. That court filing complicates the Hollywood story. On a recent episode of What Next, we talked about Michael Oher’s efforts to reclaim the narrative. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Yasmeen Khan: I want to take a bunch of steps back. Can you just tell us: Who is Michael Oher? How was he as an athlete? What kind of career did he have?
Santul Nerkar: Michael Oher, as an offensive tackle, as a left tackle, his job—and this is where the name of the movie comes in—is to defend the quarterback’s blind side. As a player, he was around 6’4”, 6’5,” very nimble off of his feet for someone of his size. In 2009, he’s drafted in the first round, and then he plays in the NFL for eight seasons. He wins the Super Bowl with the Ravens. And he earns $35 million in his career.
So, by all accounts, he was a successful professional athlete. Who are the Tuohys? How would you describe them?
Sean Tuohy played basketball for the University of Mississippi. He’s drafted into the NBA but doesn’t really get a shot at playing. So, he goes into the restaurant management business. He makes a lot of money from owning and selling restaurant franchises.
How did Oher come to meet the Tuohys?
In the telling of The Blind Side, there was a morning where they were driving and they saw Michael Oher just walking in this neighborhood. And it was a neighborhood where “he shouldn’t have been.” They didn’t understand why this big Black teenager was walking in a neighborhood where they normally didn’t see Black people. Over time they got to know him a little bit more. He started staying over at their place. And then eventually in 2004, they come to him and say, “I think we should adopt you.”
Just to be clear, do we know that they ever used those words with him—that they ever used the term adoption with him?
They do say in their book that they adopted Michael. This is what they said: “But the biggest event for all of us that spring was our adoption of Michael. Actually, this was just a formality, the legal completion of an emotional process that started long before. In our hearts and minds, Michael was now our third child.”
In fact, in their 2010 book, the Tuohys use a variation on the word adoption more than 30 times. This language? It’s really important. Because just like the rest of America was led to believe, Michael Oher claims he always thought the Tuohys had adopted him. But what they’d really done is place him under a conservatorship. Conservatorship, by the way, that word appears zero times in the Tuohys’ book. And where the word adoption evokes images of family, conservatorships are much more contractual. These legal agreements are meant for people who are physically or psychologically unable to handle their own affairs, but that’s not Michael Oher, right?
The judge said that Michael Oher had no known physical or psychological disabilities. He had none of the signs or the conditions that most people who are entering a conservatorship display.
Why would a judge allow this to go through?
That’s the standing question at this point. Conservatorships are typically not used for people in Michael Oher’s circumstances. The judge did note in the order that Oher was dependent on the Tuohys, that he wanted to stay in their house, that he’d been staying with them for a while. And that was given as the justification as to why he was being put into this conservatorship. But that is not in keeping with what that legal arrangement is usually used for.
According to Oher, this conservatorship gave the Tuohys tons of control over his life and his money. What were the parameters exactly of the conservatorship, at least according to Oher?
The conservatorship was of Michael Oher, the person, which means that the Tuohys explicitly had power over his decision-making process when it came to medical decisions; they had power of attorney. It was not of the estate, which is an important distinction, because Michael Oher didn’t have any estate. The order also did say that he could not enter into any contract agreements, anything like that, without the Tuohys’ consent first. So, on one hand, the order does not state that they have power over his money. But at the same time, Michael Oher is asking the question “Well, did they use this anyway to enter into agreements on my behalf? Did they use my name to benefit themselves without me knowing?”
Let’s fast-forward to last week. Oher filed a 14-page petition against the Tuohys. What exactly is he claiming in the filing? And what exactly is he asking for?
He’s asking for a number of things. He’s asking, first and foremost, for the conservatorship to be dropped. The Tuohys have agreed to that. And he’s also asking for a detailed accounting of all the times in which the Tuohys have referred to him as their adopted son and all the agreements they may have entered into on his behalf. He’s essentially asking for a written record of this conservatorship, which has not existed for almost 20 years now. That’s what he’s asking, and it’s going to take a long time to get this sorted out in the courts.
We know that the Tuohys have said that they will drop the conservatorship. But in general, how have they reacted to this court filing?
They have reacted publicly with a mix of astonishment and sadness. They’ve kept saying, “Michael is our son. We will love him.” That’s been their public response. But they’ve also defended the fact that they had the conservatorship. They said that it was like becoming part of the family. And through the lawyers, they’ve also said that, essentially, this was kind of forgotten and that they’d just let it be. They’ve also accused Michael Oher of trying to shake them down for $15 million. So that’s another important piece of this. That’s a fairly sizable accusation from them.
Shakedown is pretty strong terminology to use for someone you consider to be part of your family. Is there any way to determine who’s telling the truth here?
Right now, it’s very difficult without the records that I was talking about. Typically with conservatorships, there’s a pretty detailed paper trail when it comes to the transactions. Michael Oher came into a lot of money in the NFL. He played for a team that won the Super Bowl. It’s difficult to quantify just how the Tuohys have benefited from the Michael Oher story and their role in it.
There seems to be some confusion over when Michael Oher realized that he was in a conservatorship, or at least that the conservatorship was not what he thought it was. In his memoir from 2011, he writes, “They explained to me that conservatorship means pretty much the exact same thing as adoptive parents.” So, what did Oher want or think he was getting when he signed that paperwork?
Oher has said that he thought it was a necessary part of being adopted. And you’re right, in that memoir, he does say that they were becoming my conservators. So, he has known for a long time that the Tuohys were his conservators. What he didn’t know, according to his most recent petition, is that he hadn’t been adopted, because those are two separate things. Now, some people have said, “Well, he couldn’t have been adopted. He was 18.” There are provisions that allow for adult adoption in Tennessee. So that was an option available to the Tuohys, and that was something that Michael wanted and that he was under the impression of for all these years, he says. But it just never happened.
This may be out of your wheelhouse, but I’m imagining that all of this is coming out of a place of some pain, that Oher thought he was part of this family and he wasn’t—even beyond the issues of maybe feeling exploited and feeling like he didn’t have control over his life. I’m wondering if this has occurred to you?
That’s certainly what he’s saying. And what he said in the petition is that this was something that was humiliating for him to find out, that he was never part of the family. In some ways, he said that he felt that he was led on, that he was lied to about his relationship with his family. And in many ways, it questions the real authenticity of The Blind Side. Here’s this wealthy family. They take in this struggling kid. They had no reason to do it. And so, for this detail to come out now, it definitely casts doubt on the authenticity of the original narrative, both captured in the book and in the movie.
Oher has criticized, for years, how he’s been portrayed in the film. What has he said about that?
He said that the film made it out that he didn’t know how to play football. And that’s the thing that he has been most upset about. There’s a scene in the movie where he’s sitting around a dining table with the son of the family that took him in, Sean Tuohy Jr. Sean Tuohy Jr. is a young kid in this, and he’s showing Michael how to move around the football field. And it kind of shows Michael Oher as being unknowledgeable about football. And that is what Michael Oher most did not like about that movie is that it showed him out to be somebody who didn’t understand his very vocation.
And he says that that has followed him for years into his career.
Yeah. He said that when he was in the NFL draft and was interviewing with teams, that was something that followed him, something that led him to fall in the draft because teams had unspecified suspicions about character issues that he had. He says it’s something that affected his NFL contracts and how players view him, how teams view them.
And again, that’s difficult to quantify. He did have a very successful career. Like I said, he had the combination of size, speed, and agility that is so sought after in that position. But it is also true that he thinks that this movie is the prevailing image for most Americans of Michael Oher. And he is trying to correct that record.
Another interesting thing about the film and the book is how little it’s really focused on Michael Oher, even though it’s about him, but these stories are really from the vantage point of the Tuohys. How would you say that Oher’s voice has been missing from these most popular versions of his story?
To give the book as an example, Michael Lewis didn’t really talk to Michael Oher for the book. Now, part of that was that Michael Oher was in high school and dealing with a lot of things independently. And Michael Oher’s early life, there aren’t many records of it because he bounced from place to place, from home to home. You’re staying on a lot of people’s couches. That part is very much simplified. His career on the football field is simplified, and it is very much being defined in terms of what the Tuohys thought of him, what the school he went to thought of him. You have to read his books, you have to listen to him talk to get a sense of what he wants the world to think of him.
You said that there’s a history of Black athletes being sidelined in this way. I’m wondering what’s changed about that, if anything.
What you’ve seen in recent years was a lot of athletes taking their voice into their own hands, not going through media, not going through writers. A lot of players now host their own podcasts, which is an example of that. It was Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors who called it “new media”—we’re taking our perspective into our own hands. We’re talking about ourselves, and we don’t need to go through a third party. It’s easy to wonder how much different the story would be if it was taking place in 2023 rather than in the early 2000s.
It has been two decades since the book The Blind Side was written. How would you say that our understanding of racism and sports has changed in that time?
I think it has changed significantly—in a few ways. One is what I was talking about in terms of how athletes have more control of their own narrative. Black athletes, for a long time, have been more likely to be depicted as more pace and power than smarts. And that’s something that the movie really, really typifies. It doesn’t show Oher as having the acumen to play that position. He’s just this really, really naturally gifted ball of clay that the Tuohys mold in their image. That’s something that’s certainly changed—the broader depiction of Black athletes. Americans overall, their comfort in that has certainly changed to the point where they cringe more at movie like The Blind Side.
Salaries, too, have risen. There’s more money in sports. Black athletes in many ways have more negotiating power, particularly in college now with NCAA legislation that has allowed college athletes to profit from their own name, image, and likeness. The system today, while it might not be perfect for Black athletes, it certainly does involve more protections than it did back in 2004.
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This situation between Oher and the Tuohys is a very specific case. But how does Oher’s story resonate in a sport where the careers of Black athletes are often controlled by white wealthy patrons?
One thing that’s unclear from this is: Are there other people in Michael Oher’s situation? Athletes who had preternatural talent and then were helped along the way, in the telling of white people, by white, wealthy families to get to where they are. A very significant part of this is the Tuohys’ connections to the University of Mississippi, their role as boosters, and the fact that Michael Oher ended up at the University of Mississippi. That’s a dynamic not just with the University of Mississippi, but with a lot of college football programs around the country. This amendment or correction to the narrative is something that is resonating more with Black athletes and Black Americans because they have for a very long time doubted the authenticity of the story or the feel-good nature of this story. For a long time, many Black viewers, many Black athletes have seen this as infantilizing.
Do you think Michael Oher’s story could be made into a movie today? It might look a little different.
There is a reason that it earned more than $300 million. It’s one of the highest-grossing sports movies of all time. So, I don’t think that suddenly people would not watch that movie now. I think that there’s a good case to be made that Michael Oher would have better representation around him that would advocate more on his behalf in terms of how he is portrayed. But, I think that people still really, really like that narrative. It’s comforting to their senses. In many ways, it’s a story of sports in America—the Black athlete who’s helped along by the white society around him. I don’t want to act like that part is necessarily changed.