Retired NFL star Michael Oher, whose supposed adoption out of grinding poverty by a wealthy, white family was immortalized in the 2009 movie “The Blind Side,” petitioned a Tennessee court Monday with allegations that a central element of the story was a lie concocted by the family to enrich itself at his expense.
The 14-page petition, filed in Shelby County, Tennessee, probate court, alleges that Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, who took Oher into their home as a high school student, never adopted him. Instead, less than three months after Oher turned 18 in 2004, the petition says, the couple tricked him into signing a document making them his conservators, which gave them legal authority to make business deals in his name.
The petition further alleges that the Tuohys used their power as conservators to strike a deal that paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from an Oscar-winning film that earned more than $300 million, while Oher got nothing for a story “that would not have existed without him.” 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 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,” the legal filing 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.”
The Tuohy family did not immediately return phone calls Monday to numbers listed for them. Their attorney, Steve Farese, declined comment to ESPN on Monday, saying the family would file a legal response to the allegations in the coming weeks.
Sean Tuohy told the Daily Memphian website that he was stunned by Oher’s allegations and said the Tuohys “didn’t make any money off the movie,” only a share of proceeds from Michael Lewis’ book, which was the foundation for the film.
“We’re devastated,” Sean Tuohy told the outlet. “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.”
Oher’s petition asks the court to end the Tuohys’ conservatorship and to issue an injunction barring them from using his name and likeness. It also seeks a full accounting of the money the Tuohys earned using Oher’s name, and to have the couple pay him his fair share of profits, as well as unspecified 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,” the petition says. “All monies made in said manner should in all conscience and equity be disgorged and paid over to the said ward, Michael Oher.”
Oher was a rising high school senior when he signed the conservatorship papers, and he has written that the Tuohys told him that there was essentially no difference between adoption and conservatorship. “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,” Oher wrote in his 2011 best-selling memoir “I Beat the Odds.”
But there are some important legal distinctions. If Oher had been adopted by the Tuohys, he would have been a legal member of their family, and he would have retained power to handle his own financial affairs. Under the conservatorship, Oher surrendered that authority to the Tuohys, even though he was a legal adult with no known physical or psychological disabilities.
The petition alleges that the Tuohys began negotiating a movie deal about their relationship with Oher shortly after the 2006 release of the book “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” which chronicled the story.
According to the legal filing, the movie paid the Tuohys and their two birth children each $225,000, plus 2.5% of the film’s “defined net proceeds.” The movie became a critically acclaimed blockbuster, reportedly grossing more than $300 million at the box office, and tens of millions of dollars more in home video sales. The film received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and Sandra Bullock won a Best Actress trophy for her portrayal of Leigh Anne Tuohy. While the deal allowed the Tuohys to profit from the film, the petition alleges, a separate 2007 contract purportedly signed by Oher appears to “give away” to 20th Century Fox studios the life rights to his story “without any payment whatsoever.” The filing says Oher has no recollection of signing that contract, and even if he did, no one explained its implications to him.
The deal lists all four Tuohy family members as having the same representative at Creative Artists Agency, the petition says. But Oher’s agent, who would receive movie contract and payment notices, is listed as Debra Branan, a close family friend of the Tuohys and the same lawyer who filed the 2004 conservatorship petition, the petition alleges. Branan did not return a call to her law office on Monday.
In the past, the Tuohys have denied making much money from the movie, saying they received a flat fee for the story and did not reap any of the movie’s profits. And what they did earn, they added, was shared with Oher.
“We divided it five ways,” the Tuohys wrote in their 2010 book, “In a Heartbeat: Sharing the Power of Cheerful Giving.”
Oher’s court petition says he never received any money from the movie, even though he long suspected that others were profiting, according to his attorney, J. Gerard Stranch IV. Whenever Oher asked questions, he did not get straight answers, his attorney said.
And since the film’s success coincided with the start of his lucrative NFL career in 2009, Oher did not take the time to fully investigate the deal until after he retired in 2016, Stranch said. Oher eventually hired a lawyer who helped him uncover the details surrounding the movie deal and his legal connection to the people he believed were his adoptive parents. His lawyer unearthed the conservatorship document in February, and Oher came to the painful realization that the Tuohys had not adopted him.
“Mike didn’t grow up with a stable family life,” Stranch said. “When the Tuohy family told Mike they loved him and wanted to adopt him, it filled a void that had been with him his entire life. Discovering that he wasn’t actually adopted devastated Mike and wounded him deeply.”
The petition marks a sharp break in what had been an inspiring, if unsettlingly stereotypical, feel-good story. As the movie portrayed the story, the Tuohys adopted Oher, a poor, virtually homeless and academically challenged Black teenager. They made Oher part of a functional family for the first time. They helped him catch up in school, taught him the basics of football and how to harness his physical skills, putting him on the road to sports stardom.