Michael Lewis, the author of The Blind Side, has defended the family at the heart of the book over allegations they deceived former NFL player Michael Oher.
Oher filed a petition in a Tennessee court earlier this week saying Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy did not adopt him – a central plank of the bestselling book – but instead deceived him into making them his conservators just after his 18th birthday.
Lewis’s book tells the story of how Oher, who is Black, grew up in grinding poverty before being taken in by the Tuohys, a wealthy white family. He eventually had a successful career in the NFL, winning a Super Bowl with the Baltimore Ravens. The book was adapted into an Oscar winning movie, and Oher’s petition claims that as conservators, the Tuohys were able to sign deals that earned them and their two birth children millions of dollars from the film but excluded Oher from any of the income.
In an interview with the Washington Post on Thursday, Lewis defended the Tuohys and put the blame on the entertainment industry.
“Everybody should be mad at the Hollywood studio system,” Lewis, who was a close schoolfriend of Sean Tuohy, said. “Michael Oher should join the writers strike. It’s outrageous how Hollywood accounting works, but the money is not in the Tuohys’ pockets.”
Lewis told the Washington Post that the Tuohys made relatively modest sums from The Blind Side movie, which took more than $300m at the box office. He says he and the Tuohys made around $350,000 after taxes and agent fees from the movie, which were also shared with Oher. However, Lewis says Oher began declining royalty income and the Tuohys instead put that money into a trust for the former NFL player’s son.
“What I feel really sad about is I watched the whole thing up close,” Lewis said. “They showered him with resources and love. That he’s suspicious of them is breathtaking. The state of mind one has to be in to do that – I feel sad for him.”
If Oher had been adopted by the Tuohys, he would have had control of his finances relating to the film. As someone under a conservatorship, Oher ceded that control to the Tuohys.
In his 2011 memoir, Oher said the Tuohys had told him conservatorship and adoption were almost identical. “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,” he wrote.
The Blind Side never uses the term conservatorship. Lewis told the Post that he believes the Tuohys chose to act as conservators because it was quicker than adoption. The Tuohys, who have often described Oher as their adopted son, have said they opted for conservatorship rather than adoption as he was over 18 at the time.
“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,” told The Daily Memphian on Monday. “We were so concerned it was on the up-and-up that we made sure [Oher’s] biological mother came to court.”
However, Elizabeth Psar, a Tennessee family attorney who spoke to ESPN this week, said Oher could have been adopted when he was over 18.
“Adults can be adopted in Tennessee, but, obviously, the adults have to consent to it,” she said. “It would have been easy to file [the adoption documents], like you would anything else.”
Under Tennessee law, conservatorships are meant for people with mental or physical conditions that mean they cannot make decisions for themselves. Oher initially had trouble at high school as he had missed earlier educational opportunities due to his tough upbringing. But once he caught up with his peers he went on to graduate high school and obtained an undergraduate degree in criminal justice.
Barbara Moss, a Tennessee attorney who has dealt with conservatorships, called the arrangement between the Tuohys and Oher “bizarre”.
“I’ve never seen something like that happen,” she told the Washington Post. “From what I know of Michael Oher … he wouldn’t have qualified.”
On Tuesday Martin Singer, an attorney for the Tuohy family, said “the idea that the family ever sought to profit off Mr Oher is not only offensive, it is transparently ridiculous.”
The statement also claims Oher had threatened to go public with the story unless the Tuohys paid him $15m.
“In reality, the Tuohys opened their home to Mr Oher, offered him structure, support and, most of all, unconditional love,” the statement said. “They have consistently treated him like a son and one of their three children. His response was to threaten them, including saying that he would plant a negative story about them in the press unless they paid him $15m.”
While the movie was a huge success, many critics said it descended into a “white savior” tale and played into negative racial stereotypes. The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw called it “a Photoshopped image of reality that is bland, parochial, and stereotypically acted”.
Oher has said the movie depicted him as unintelligent, which went on to affect his NFL career.
“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.”
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