The man who inspired one of the nation’s most well-known adoption stories filed a case in a Tennessee court this week, claiming the storybook version of his life portrayed on film was used for profit by the wealthy parents who took him in and lied about his adoption.
Michael Oher escaped foster care and survived a childhood of destitution and homelessness before moving in with the Tuohy family of Memphis after his junior year of high school. He went on to become one of the top college football recruits in the nation, and a starting right tackle for the Super Bowl-winning Baltimore Ravens. Oher’s life was depicted in the 2009 film “The Blind Side,” starring Quinton Aaron and Sandra Bullock, who won an Oscar for best actress.
Court documents filed this week in a Shelby County probate court tell a far more exploitative after-story. They accuse Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy — the parents who took Oher in — of lying about their legal relationship, then exploiting his name and image for their own benefit. They are referred to as “Conservators” in the filings.
“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” said the court petition. “All monies made in said manner should in all conscience and equity be disgorged and paid over to the said ward, Michael Oher.”
There had been growing signs of Oher’s dissatisfaction. In books and interviews in the years since “The Blind Side” was released, Oher, 37, has attempted to correct what he describes as the film’s inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of him. His character is depicted as a low-IQ, monosyllabic Black teenager rescued from obscurity and taught football basics by a white Christian family — even though, he has argued, he had reading, writing and football skills well before entering the Tuohy home.
Now, Oher is making an even graver claim in court: Contrary to their repeated public statements, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy never formally adopted him, but instead misled him into signing away his contract rights through a different legal status called conservatorship after he turned 18.
“Where other parents of Michael’s classmates saw Michael simply as a nice kid in need, Conservators Sean Tuohy and Leigh Ann Tuohy saw something else: a gullible young man whose athletic talent could be exploited for their own benefit,” said the 15-page petition filed in his long-dormant Shelby County conservatorship case.
Oher is seeking damages and a full accounting of how the Tuohys have profited from his image and success through their own books, paid speaking engagements, the book the film was based on, and “The Blind Side” movie — which took in box office revenue of more than $330 million. He has also asked the court to terminate the conservatorship, due to the Tuohys’ “failure to perform their duties and obligations in accordance with the law.”
In interviews this week, members of the Tuohy family have confirmed Oher lived with them under a conservatorship, but they have rejected claims of exploitation or substantial profits. They also accused Oher of a “shakedown.”
“Anyone with a modicum of common sense can see that the outlandish claims made by Michael Oher about the Tuohy family are hurtful and absurd,” said a statement released by the family attorney and obtained by the celebrity news site TMZ. “The notion that a couple worth hundreds of millions of dollars would connive to withhold a few thousand dollars in profit participation payments from anyone — let alone from someone they loved as a son — defies belief.”
The statement insists that the couple have shared modest income from the film equally and that it can be “documented in profit participation checks and studio accounting statements.” They accuse the retired offensive tackle of repeatedly threatening them with negative media coverage unless they gave him $15 million.
Attorney Martin Singer’s public statement added that the family has never profited from the conservatorship, which was established “to assist with Mr. Oher’s needs, ranging from getting him health insurance and obtaining a driver’s license to helping with college admissions.”
In books and interviews in the years since “The Blind Side” was released, Oher, 37, has attempted to correct what he describes as the film’s inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of him.
Adoption court proceedings result in children or adults becoming full members of another family in the eyes of the law. Hearings take place in state juvenile or family courts, and typically involve termination of the birth parents’ rights. The Tennessean newspaper reported Tuesday the state’s conservatorship process “removes the decision-making powers and duties” from “a person with a disability who lacks the capacity to make decisions in one or more important areas.”
Oher claims he was “falsely advised by the Tuohys” that the conservatorship was, “for all intents and purposes, an adoption.” In fact, he states, it created “no familial relationship with the Tuohys.”
Court documents state that Oher suffered “chagrin and embarrassment” as a result.
His earlier impressions of the legal arrangement appeared in Oher’s 2011 book, “I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness, to The Blind Side, and Beyond.”
“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. “Honestly, I didn’t care what it was called. I was just happy that no one could argue that we weren’t legally what we already knew was real: We were a family.”
Adoptees on social media and group chats have expressed disbelief, hurt and disappointment at the news — which they say reveals a deeper dysfunction in the nation’s adoption practices.
Transracial adoptee April Dinwoodie, a writer, podcaster and consultant, expressed solidarity with Oher in a TikTok post, noting that the film “never quite sat right” with her.
“A lot of movies that have these narratives of Black children being saved by white people in any way, shape or form just always rubbed me the wrong way,” she said. “And what was even worse though, was how much the public ate it up, and eat it up, and just go crazy over these narratives. I think the big question now is, how are white adoptive parents feeling about this new plot twist, and Michael’s realities that are being shared in his voice?”
When ESPN broke the news about his court filing Monday, Lupe Finckward — who spent more than 12 years in Arizona’s foster care system and was adopted at age 30 by a mentor — was stepping off a plane. She was greeted with numerous text messages from other adoptees.
“In that moment, my heart was crushed,” Finckward said. “Between the book and the movie, so many of us are invested in his family — because we saw some of ourselves in it.”
Finckward added that stories like these that have characters well known to the public can have a troubling impact. She said some youth advocates are now voicing concerns that foster youth following Oher’s story might come to view adoption as a scam or mistrust the process.
“We still want young people to know that there’s families out there who love you and make sure that you have the support around you when making these forever-type of decisions,” she said.
Other experts on adoption saw evidence of troubling secrecy that has long been evident.
“Adoption again based on lies and deception,” tweeted the memoir author Owen Rudy, an adoptee from Michigan who advocates for the rights of his peers to access vital records like birth certificates.
Leigh Anne Tuohy’s website, as of Tuesday, still had a page with pictures of her family members that included a photo of Oher’s face. The caption described him as the couple’s “adopted son.”
Oher’s life with the Tuohys has been described repeatedly from multiple perspectives. It was first shared publicly in the nonfiction book by acclaimed journalist Michael Lewis and published in 2006. “The Blind Side” film came three years later. In 2010, Sean Tuohy — a restaurant magnate described in the trade publication Franchise Times as owning 155 restaurants and properties — and Leigh Anne co-wrote their own story. In it, the Tuohys, who have a biological daughter and son, criticized people around them who expressed concern about bringing a Black teenage boy into their home.
“We knew that people would talk when they found out we had adopted Michael,” the couple wrote.
Jeremy Loudenback contributed to this story.