Retired NFL star Michael Oher, whose supposed adoption out of grinding poverty by a wealthy, white family was immortalized in the 2009 movie “The Blind Side,” petitioned a Tennessee court Monday with allegations that a central element of the story was a lie concocted by the family to enrich itself at his expense.
The 14-page petition, filed in Shelby County, Tennessee, probate court, alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, who took Oher into their home as a high school student, never adopted him. Instead, less than three months after Oher turned 18 in 2004, the petition says, the couple tricked him into signing a document making them his conservators, which gave them legal authority to make business deals in his name.
The petition further alleges that the Tuohys used their power as conservators to strike a deal that paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from an Oscar-winning film that earned more than $300 million, while Oher got nothing for a story “that would not have existed without him.” In the years since, the Tuohys have continued calling the 37-year-old Oher their adopted son and have used that assertion to promote their foundation as well as Leigh Anne Tuohy’s work as an author and motivational speaker.
“The lie of Michael’s adoption is one upon which Co-Conservators Leigh Anne Tuohy and Sean Tuohy have enriched themselves at the expense of their Ward, the undersigned Michael Oher,” the legal filing says. “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 Tuohy family did not immediately return phone calls Monday to numbers listed for them. Their attorney, Steve Farese, declined comment to ESPN on Monday, saying the family would file a legal response to the allegations in the coming weeks.
Sean Tuohy told the Daily Memphian website that he was stunned by Oher’s allegations and said the Tuohys “didn’t make any money off the movie,” only a share of proceeds from Michael Lewis’ book, which was the foundation for the film.
“We’re devastated,” Sean Tuohy told the outlet. “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.”
Oher’s petition asks the court to end the Tuohys’ conservatorship and to issue an injunction barring them from using his name and likeness. It also seeks a full accounting of the 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.
“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.”
Oher was a rising high school senior when he signed the conservatorship papers, and he has written that the Tuohys told him that there was essentially no difference between adoption and conservatorship. “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 in his 2011 best-selling memoir “I Beat the Odds.”
But there are some important legal distinctions. If Oher had been adopted by the Tuohys, he would have been a legal member of their family, and he would have retained power to handle his own financial affairs. Under the conservatorship, Oher surrendered that authority to the Tuohys, even though he was a legal adult with no known physical or psychological disabilities.
The petition alleges that the Tuohys began negotiating a movie deal about their relationship with Oher shortly after the 2006 release of the book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” which chronicled the story.
According to the legal filing, the movie paid the Tuohys and their two birth children each $225,000, plus 2.5% of the film’s “defined net proceeds.” The movie became a critically acclaimed blockbuster, reportedly grossing more than $300 million at the box office, and tens of millions of dollars more in home video sales. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Sandra Bullock won a Best Actress trophy for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy. While the deal allowed the Tuohys to profit from the film, the petition alleges, a separate 2007 contract purportedly signed by Oher appears to “give away” to 20th Century Fox studios the life rights to his story “without any payment whatsoever.” The filing says Oher has no recollection of signing that contract, and even if he did, no one explained its implications to him.
The deal lists all four Tuohy family members as having the same representative at Creative Artists Agency, the petition says. 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, the petition alleges. Branan did not return a call to her law office on Monday.
In the past, the Tuohys have denied making much money from the movie, saying they received a flat fee for the story and did not reap any of the movie’s profits. And what they did earn, they added, was shared with Oher.
“We divided it five ways,” the Tuohys wrote in their 2010 book, “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving.”
Oher’s court petition says he never received any money from the movie, even though he long suspected that others were profiting, according to his attorney, J. Gerard Stranch IV. Whenever Oher asked questions, he did not get straight answers, his attorney said.
And since the film’s success coincided with the start of his lucrative NFL career in 2009, Oher did not take the time to fully investigate the deal until after he retired in 2016, Stranch said. Oher eventually hired a lawyer who helped him uncover the details surrounding the movie deal and his legal connection to the people he believed were his adoptive parents. His lawyer unearthed the conservatorship document in February, and Oher came to the painful realization that the Tuohys had not adopted him.
“Mike didn’t grow up with a stable family life,” Stranch said. “When the Tuohy family told Mike they loved him and wanted to adopt him, it filled a void that had been with him his entire life. Discovering that he wasn’t actually adopted devastated Mike and wounded him deeply.”
The petition marks a sharp break in what had been an inspiring, if unsettlingly stereotypical, feel-good story. As the movie portrayed the story, the Tuohys adopted Oher, a poor, virtually homeless and academically challenged Black teenager. They made Oher part of a functional family for the first time. They helped him catch up in school, taught him the basics of football and how to harness his physical skills, putting him on the road to sports stardom.
The truth, however, was more complicated.
Oher certainly led a hard-knock life growing up. But he also had the smarts, the pluck and plenty of help from the Tuohys and others to rise above his circumstances.
Oher was one of 12 children born to his mother, who struggled with drug addiction. Before his 11th birthday, Oher was placed into foster care, where he bounced around numerous homes, and at times lived on the streets. Although he was a capable student, he attended 11 schools in nine years, and repeated both the first and second grades, leaving him behind academically.
His fortunes changed after a friend’s father, impressed with Oher’s inner drive and focus, introduced him to the principal of a private Christian school in a prosperous Memphis neighborhood. Oher began attending the school in 10th grade, even as his home life remained chaotic. He was a sports prodigy, excelling in track and field, basketball and football, a game he had studied for years.
He began playing football for his new school in 11th grade, quickly establishing himself as one of the nation’s top offensive linemen, and college scholarship offers poured in from big-time football programs across the country.
Because of his unstable housing situation, Oher frequently stayed over at the homes of his classmates, including the Tuohys, whose children attended the school. The petition says that the Tuohys forged a closer relationship with him once Oher’s athletic prowess drew wide attention. They invited him to spend more nights at their spacious Memphis home and took him shopping. Eventually, they asked Oher to move in. They encouraged him to address them as “mom” and “dad,” and said they planned to adopt him, the filing says.
Oher was delighted with all that at the time, his lawyer said, and he fully trusted the Tuohys.
Oher went on to play college football at the University of Mississippi, the Tuohys’ alma mater. He was a two-time All-American and a first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in 2009.
After the success of “The Blind Side,” however, suspicion slowly eclipsed Oher’s trust of the Tuohys, his lawyer said.
“Mike’s relationship with the Tuohy family started to decline when he discovered that he was portrayed in the movie as unintelligent,” Stranch said. “Their relationship continued to deteriorate as he learned that he was the only member of the family not receiving royalty checks from the movie, and it was permanently fractured when he realized he wasn’t adopted and a part of the family.”
For years, Oher has chafed at how “The Blind Side” depicted him, saying it hurt his football career and clouded how people view him. He has said that based on the film, some NFL decision-makers assumed he was mentally slow or lacked leadership skills.
“People look at me, and they take things away from me because of a movie,” Oher told ESPN in 2015. “They don’t really see the skills and the kind of player I am.”
For their part, the Tuohys agreed that Oher always had what it took to succeed. “If there is a fundamental misapprehension about Michael, it’s that he needed saving,” the Tuohys wrote in their book. “We discovered that underneath his shyness, his foot shuffling, and his head ducking, he had a tremendous will to determine the course of his own life.”
For years, Oher has said, he was content to live with the myth created by the movie, reasoning that its inspirational message outweighed the pain inflicted by what he saw as its inaccurate portrayal of his life. But that has changed.
“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,” Oher wrote in his book “When Your Back’s Against the Wall,” released last week.
“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.”