The “blind side” in football is referred to as the left tackle, the position responsible for protecting the quarterback from the pass rush on the side the quarterback cannot see coming. The responsibility of protecting the quarterback from a blind side hit is a skill former NFL player and Ole Miss superstar Michael Oher excelled at as a left tackle. The college superstar was a two time All American, three time All SEC Honoree, and is currently nominated for the 2024 College Football Hall of Fame ballot. Having spent his football career bearing the responsibility of protecting the blindside of his quarterback, Oher now claims that he has been personally blindsided by those who raised him, an irony not likely lost on him.
Michael Oher’s life story was first featured in the book, The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game, written by Michael Lewis, and the blockbuster film, The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock and Tim McGraw. The film “chronicled the inspirational story of now-retired NFL offensive lineman Michael Oher, who overcame homelessness as a child and went on to become a top draft pick after a supportive white couple adopted him under their care.” Thirteen years have passed since the heartfelt film won an Oscar at the 82nd Academy Awards in 2010. The film, however, has now made its way back into the headlines—this time in a controversial light.
Credit: Jeff Weese
Oher has alleged in a Tennessee probate court that a “central element of the story was a lie concocted by the family to enrich itself at his expense.” The legal filing alleges that Oher was never adopted by Sean and Leigh Tuohy, but rather the couple tricked him into signing a Petition for Appointment of Conservators, making the couple his conservators rather than his adoptive parents. Under Tennessee Code § 34-1-101(4)(B), “a conservatorship is a proceeding in which a court removes the decision making powers and duties from a person with a disability who lacks capacity to make decisions in one or more important areas and places responsibility for one or more of those decisions in a conservator or co-conservators.” Oher alleges that despite being over the age of eighteen and having no disabilities at the time, the Tuohys saw him as a “gullible young man whose athletic talent could be exploited at their own benefit.” The petition alleges that “at no point did the Tuohys inform Michael that they would have ultimate control of all his contracts, and as a result Michael did not understand that if the Conservatorship was granted, he was signing away his right to contract for himself.”
Rather, Oher asserts that the Tuohys falsely informed him that a conservatorship and adoption were essentially the same thing. At the time, it was his understanding that the conservatorship was “for all intents and purposes, an adoption,” and so he consented to this conservatorship on the basis that he would be a member of the Tuohy family. Yet, it was not until February 2023 that Oher learned this conservatorship provided him no familiar relationship with the Tuohys.
The Oscar-winning film The Blind Side featured to be “based on the extraordinary true story” is allegedly centered on the lie of an adoption. Oher’s petition epitomizes the important legal implications and distinction between an adoption and conservatorship. Oher’s attorney, Adam Ruther, breaks down the legal implications, stating that an “adoption is about agreeing to have a parent-child relationship and a court ordering such a relationship,” while “conservatorship or guardianship is about one-party having control over another, usually when the person is not able to control or manage their own affairs by reason of some infirmity or disability.” Simply, they are not the “same” as the Tuohys allegedly claimed them to be, because Oher surrendered his autonomy under the conservatorship.
The petition alleges that since the conservatorship in 2004, the Tuohys have utilized the adoption lie as a vehicle for personal financial gain. The Tuohys even allegedly used their power as conservators to negotiate a deal with Twentieth Century Fox to produce The Blind Side film, which earned “more than $300 million,” while he received nothing from a story that “would have not existed without him.” The co-conservators negotiated a contract price for themselves and their natural born children which consisted of “$225,000, plus 2.5% of all future defined net proceeds contingent upon Michael Oher’s signature.” Fourteen years have passed since the release of the film and Oher now claims he has no recollection of signing such a contract nor was he ever explained the legal implications of doing so.
Oher’s petition asks the court to immediately terminate the conservatorship and order an injunction enjoining the Tuohys from continuing to use his name, image, and likeness for their personal benefit. In addition, Oher seeks “full accounting of money the Tuohys earned using Oher’s name, and to have the couple pay him his fair share of profits, as well as unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.” Under Tennessee Code § 47-25-1106, the court may grant injunctions on such terms as deemed “reasonable to prevent or restrain the unauthorized use of an individual’s name, photograph, or likeness.” In addition, the court may “authorize the confiscation of all unauthorized items and seize all instrumentalities used in connection with the violation of the individual’s rights.” In considering whether to grant Oher’s petitioned injunction, the Tennessee probate court will weigh the following four factors: “(1) whether the movant has demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits; (2) whether the movant will suffer irreparable harm if the injunction is not issued; (3) whether the injunction will cause substantial harm to others if it is issued; and (4) whether granting the injunction will serve the public interest.” Oher alleges he is suffering continuing damages due to the “ongoing misuse of his name, image, and likeness,” and therefore, an injunction is necessary to protect his individual rights from being exploited in the future.
The Tuohys have responded to the news of Michael Oher’s petition contesting the allegations that they have been profiting off him for years. According to a statement released by the Tuohy’s family attorney Martin Singer, the Tuohys are “heartbroken over these events'' and called Oher’s claims an “outlandish shakedown for money.” In spite of the allegations, the Tuohys claim that Oher has received an equal cut from the film and that they have been fully transparent regarding the conservatorship. In response to the petition, Tuohy's lawyers rebut Oher’s claim of not knowing about the conservatorship until 2023 given Oher “acknowledged in his 2011 book that there was a conservatorship.” The producers of The Blind Side have also spoken out in defense of the allegations, claiming that The Blind Side is “verifiably authentic” and “will never be a lie or fake” regardless of the “familiar ups and downs that occurred subsequent to the film.”
The Blind Side, a remarkable tale of unconditional family love, has now become overshadowed by a controversial family legal battle. With football season right around the corner, the feud between Oher and the Tuohy family will likely continue to make headlines.
*The views expressed in this article do not represent the views of Santa Clara University.