The 2009 Oscar-winning movie The Blind Side was the toast of the town. But the ‘true story’ that the film was based on may not be as heartwarming as it once seemed.
The film was originally marketed as being “based on the extraordinary true story” of professional NFL footballer Michael Oher. However, as first reported by ESPN, on August 14, 2023, Michael petitioned a Tennessee court “with allegations that a central element of the story was a lie concocted by the family to enrich itself at his expense.”
The Blind Side grossed more than US$300 million at the box office and earnt Sandra Bullock her first Academy Award.
In the film, Michael – played by Quinton Aaron – is portrayed as a struggling homeless teenager who eventually, after being adopted and encouraged by the Tuohy family, becomes a skilful football player that qualifies for a National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I athletic scholarship.
Michael alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy – who were played by Tim McGraw and Sandra Bullock in the film – never adopted him and instead tricked him in 2004, less than three months after he turned 18, into signing a document that made them his conservators; meaning Sean and Leigh Anne would have legal authority to make business deals in Michael’s name.
Furthermore, Michael also alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne negotiated a deal for themselves and their two biological children Collins and Sean Junior (SJ) – played by Lily Collins and Jae Head in the film – to receive millions of dollars in royalties from The Blind Side, whereas Michael has not received a single cent from the film, the story of which he says “would not have existed without him”.
“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,” Michael’s petition 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,” it continues.
Micahel’s petition also asks the court to end the Tuohys’ conservatorship and bar them from ever using his name and likeness again. Additionally, Michael is seeking his fair share of any profit the Tuohys made from using his name in the past, as well as 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. All monies made in said manner should in all conscience and equity be disgorged and paid over to the said ward, Michael Oher,” Michael’s petition states.
Sean Tuohy has denied Michael’s allegations and told the Daily Memphian that he and his family are “devastated”.
“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,” Sean said.
He then claimed that he and the Tuohy family “didn’t make any money off the movie” before adding:
“Well, Michael Lewis gave us half of his share. Everybody in the family got an equal share, including Michael [Oher]. It was about US$14,000, each. We were never offered money; we never asked for money. My money is well-documented; you can look up how much I sold my company for.”
For context, Michael Lewis wrote a book about Michael Oher and the Tuohy family called The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game and the film was heavily inspired by this book.
Sean went on to say that he was told by the NCAA that “the only way Michael could go to Ole Miss [the University of Mississippi] was if he was actually part of the family”, and that’s why he and his wife became Michael’s conservators.
“I sat Michael down and told him, ‘If you’re planning to go to Ole Miss — or even considering Ole Miss — we think you have to be part of the family. This [the conservatorship] would do that, legally.’ We contacted lawyers who had told us that we couldn’t adopt over the age of 18; the only thing we could do was to have a conservatorship. We were so concerned it was on the up-and-up that we made sure the biological mother came to court,” Sean said.
Michael’s attorney J. Gerard Stranch IV has told ESPN this is not the case, and that Michael believed that Sean and Leigh Anne were his adoptive parents right up until earlier this year when Stranch unearthed the conservatorship documents.
According to Stranch, Michael has long suspected that the Tuohy family made a large profit from The Blind Side but because his NFL career took off around the same time as the film’s release, he couldn’t properly investigate the matter until he retired in 2016.
Michael then sought legal help to find out whether the Tuohy family made a movie deal – according to Michael’s petition they did, and the movie paid Sean, Leigh Anne, Collins and SJ US$225,000 each, plus 2.5 percent of the film’s “defined net proceeds” – and this is how he discovered the conservatorship he was under.