Michael Oher’s ‘Blind Side’ Lawsuit Shows Strains in Depictions of Black Athletes

by Pelican Press
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There’s a scene in the film “The Blind Side” that intends to be an uplifting moment of triumph. Michael Oher, a talented offensive lineman who is Black, is struggling in a high school football practice, and in steps Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white woman who pulls him aside for a pep talk.

Tuohy, who in the movie’s retelling took Oher into her home after spotting him walking on the side of a Memphis-area road on a cold, damp evening, recounts an earlier scene in which he had protected her from drug dealers in a “horrible part of town.” She instructs him to think of that when he is doing his duty — protecting the quarterback’s blind side — and to think of the quarterback and running back as herself and her biological son, Sean Jr.

“Protect the family, Michael,” Tuohy, portrayed by Sandra Bullock in the 2009 film, says.

Oher takes the advice and the practice turns into a montage of his extraordinary physical capabilities. He earns raucous approval from his teammates and the bewildered happiness of his coach, thanks to Tuohy’s familial advice.

In real life, Oher — who is suing Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, the Memphis couple that took him into their family when he was 16 — has long said he knew more about football than the movie suggested. And his lawsuit filed this week accused the Tuohys of exaggerating the specifics of their relationship and of misleading him into signing away his life story for their benefit.

On Wednesday, lawyers for the Tuohys said the family would agree to end a conservatorship that began when Oher was 18, but that it had been clear all along that Oher, 37, had not been adopted. Marty Singer, one of the Tuohys’ lawyers, said in a statement that it “defies belief” that the family would swindle Oher after earning hundreds of millions of dollars in the restaurant business.

The arrangement of the conservatorship is a central question in the case, along with the money earned in the perpetuation of the story of the Tuohys and Oher.

Michael Lewis, the author of the book that the movie is based on, “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” said in an interview when asked about the recent dispute and the lawsuit that he was saddened and stunned by Oher’s claims.

“What was such a loving event is being turned into something so sad, and it’s so unnecessary,” said Lewis, who was a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy. “There were no millions of dollars of movie money that either I or the Tuohys got.”

The film rights sold for $250,000, of which Lewis said he kept $70,000 and gave $70,000 to the Tuohys, who split it five ways between the family members, including Oher. Over the next 15 years, Lewis said he and the family received additional payments, mostly from net profits, that added up to some $280,000 for Lewis and $280,000 for the Tuohys.

For many viewers, the movie’s depiction — like many dramatized Hollywood stories that stretch the truth and go beyond the creative control of the subjects — embodied a familiar trope of Black athletes like Oher being more physically than mentally gifted, and needing white people like Leigh Anne Tuohy to help them along the way.

“The Leigh Anne Tuohy character plays the white savior trope to a T,” said Jeffrey Montez de Oca, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who has researched the intersection of sports and pop culture.

“The Blind Side,” which won Bullock an Academy Award for her role, earned more than $300 million at the box office and has had staying power as one of the most popular sports movies ever, earning countless reruns on cable television.

But it has come under fire as moviegoers and critics have increasingly scrutinized portrayals of Black Americans, including athletes, in popular culture, expressing concerns that many Black viewers and others raised when the movie was first released.

“‘The Blind Side’ traded, in many ways, on the stereotyped vision of the, let’s say, lost and helpless Black athlete and was able to succeed in part because the story was so familiar,” said Kevin Wallsten, a professor of political science at California State University, Long Beach, who has researched the connection between racial resentment and opposition toward paying college athletes.

Oher, played by Quinton Aaron in the movie, is depicted as supremely athletic but lacking the mental acuity to understand football’s complexities, and usually needing the help of other — white — characters. In one scene, Sean Tuohy Jr., a child at the time, walks Oher through a series of plays on a dining table using saltshakers and condiments as stand-ins for players on the gridiron.

Oher has said that the portrayal affected how N.F.L. teams viewed him, harming his career. Before the 2009 draft, the ESPN analyst Todd McShay said he had received two negative reports from teams concerning Oher’s character and called him one of the riskiest potential draftees.

“References to the use of ketchup bottles being my knowledge of the game — a scene many will remember from the movie — would make many of the teams hesitant,” Oher said in his new memoir, “When Your Back’s Against The Wall.”

About 20 years have passed since Oher first stepped on the field at Briarcrest Christian School in real life, before the Tuohys took him in. Plenty has changed since then. Oher has earned nearly $35 million playing in the N.F.L., won a Super Bowl and fathered four children. The country’s understanding of the inherent racial dynamics in sports has changed, too.

“It’s an entirely different context, and it’s fascinating to watch American culture revisit the story of ‘The Blind Side’ with this 20-year interlude,” Wallsten said.

A 1993 paper published in The Sociology of Sport Journal found that college students thought Black student-athletes were less intelligent, received worse grades and were not academically prepared to attend college, compared to white athletes.

One of Wallsten’s papers, co-authored with Tatishe Nteta and Lauren McCarthy, found that a slight increase of support for paying college athletes between 2014 and 2020 was driven by changing opinions on racial issues among white liberals.

Oher said in his lawsuit that one of the most hurtful revelations about his relationship with the Tuohys was that they never fully adopted him, as he believed they would and as they had claimed repeatedly.

The book and the movie echoed the paternalistic impression.

“Leigh Anne Tuohy was trying to do for one boy what economists had been trying to do, with little success, for less developed countries for the last fifty years,” Lewis said in the book. “Kick him out of one growth path and onto another. Jump-start him.”

Alexandra Alter contributed reporting.

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