Back in 2004, wealthy Memphis residents Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy formally welcomed homeless Black teenager Michael Oher into their home, creating an uplifting real-life plot development in the hit football movie, “The Blind Side,” for which Sandra Bullock won and Academy Award.
But the exact legal arrangement that made this relationship official is at the center of an explosive court fight between the Tuohys and the former NFL star. The arrangement has long been depicted as an adoption, and that’s how Oher said he understood it. But he said he recently learned it was a conservatorship, which has a number of implications. With the conservatorship, Oher alleges, the Tuohys were in control of his financial affairs, unlike an adoption, and he says they cheated him out of millions of dollars they earned after his story was made into a movie that earned more than $300 million at the box office.
FILE – In this Thursday, Nov. 12, 2015, file photo, Tabitha Soren, left, and Michael Lewis arrive at the world premiere of “The Big Short” during the AFI Fest at the TCL Chinese Theatre, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP, File)
Oher’s story was first told in the book, “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” by Berkeley author Michael Lewis, who is a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy. It remains to be seen whether the book or Lewis can clear the matter up. Lewis did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the controversy or what he knew about Oher’s understanding off his legal arrangement with the Tuohys.
Both the Tuohys and Oher have long depicted the arrangement as an adoption. That’s also the word Lewis uses in the book — adoption — which could bolster Oher’s view of the arrangement. The book briefly mentions how the Tuohys talked to Oher in early 2005 about going “through the process of formally adopting him” after he had begun to live with them.
As a high school senior, Oher’s prodigious football talent attracted the notice of leading college programs. Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy were particularly keen on him attending their alma mater, the University of Mississippi. But as prominent boosters of the Old Miss program, the couple also learned that allowing Oher to live with them, buying his clothes and paying his other living expenses could be construed by the NCAA as “boosters’ graft,” not “parental love.”
QUINTON AARON as Michael Oher and SANDRA BULLOCK as Leigh Anne Tuohy in Alcon Entertainment’s drama ‘The Blind Side,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release.
One way to get around the regulations, the book explained, was for the Tuohys to make Oher a part of their family.
In a petition filed Monday in a Tennessee probate court, Oher said he recently learned that the arrangement was a conservatorship, not an adoption, Slate reported. He acknowledged that he signed conservatorship papers when he was 18 years old but was told by the Tuohys that the conservatorship would function the same as an adoption, Slate reported.
Oher alleges that the Tuohys used their power as conservators to strike a deal with “The Blind Side” producers that paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from the movie, while Oher got nothing for a story “that would not have existed without him,” ESPN reported. 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 Tuohys hit back at Oher’s allegations Tuesday with a strongly worded statement issued by Marty Singer, a powerhouse Hollywood attorney who has defended a number of top stars dealing with criminal and civil troubles, including Bill Cosby, Charlie Sheen, Kevin Costner, Kim Kardashian and John Travolta.
The statement decried Oher’s “outlandish,” “absurd” and “hurtful” allegations and insisted that the retired athlete was given his equal share of that money that the Tuohy family earned from the movie deal, which came from a small advance and a “tiny percentage of net profits.” But Singer went further in portraying Oher in a negative light, claiming that he tried to shake the family down for $15 million, threatening to go public with his allegations if they didn’t cut him an eight-figure check.
The statement acknowledged the conservatorship, but said the Tuohys had always been upfront about “how the conservatorship was established to assist Mr. Oher’s needs.” When Oher lived with the Tuohys, these needs included helping him get his driver’s license, secure health insurance and fill out his college applications, said Singer, who insisted the Tuohys didn’t earn “a penny” from the conservatorship and would be happy to terminate it now or in the future.
Michael Oher, left, Collins Tuohy, second from left, and Leigh Anne Tuohy, whose lives are portrayed in the Oscar-nominated movie “The Blind Side,” speak with Pastor Kerry Shook, right, March 3, 2010 at Woodlands Church’s Fellowship Campus in The Woodlands, TX. (AP Photo/The Courier, Eric S. Swist, File)
Lewis’ book doesn’t contain the words “conservator” or “conservatorship,” including in reference to the Tuohys legal arrangement with Oher. Perhaps Lewis wasn’t told that the arrangement was officially a conservatorship or didn’t think that readers would care about the distinction. Lewis also reveals in his book that he learned about Oher’s story when he paid a visit to Sean Tuohy, a childhood friend from New Orleans. He heard that Oher was becoming a member of the Tuohy family, who had helped nurture his gifts as a left tackle.
Singer said that Lewis helped secure “The Blind Side” movie deal for the Tuohys. When the author was approached about turning his book into a movie, his agents negotiated a deal whereby the family would get the advance and the percentage of the profits, which they would divide equally among the members. “They made good on that pledge,” Singer said.
“The Tuohys will always care deeply for Mr. Oher,” Singer’s statement said. They are “heartbroken over these recent events” and hope to be reconciled with him one day, the statement said.
In opening their home to Oher, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy also provided Oher with structure, support and “unconditional love” when he was a teenager, Singer’s statement said. “They have consistently treated him like a son,” Singer said, “and his response has been to threaten them, including saying he would plant a negative story about them in the press unless they paid him $15 million.”