The recent revelation by ex-NFL star Michael Oher that the family he thought had adopted him had actually placed him under a conservatorship has reignited the debate about these types of guardianships and the film The Blind Side, which was based on the story of Oher’s being taken in by the Tuohy family and becoming a star football player. Here’s our take on all of the information we know so far and how it fits into society’s recent larger conversations about people’s right to control their own lives and stories.
What We Know About The Controversy So Far
The 2009 film The Blind Side, based on a book of the same name, follows the story of Oher as the Tuohy family take him into their home and eventually their family. It received criticism even back in 2009, with many calling it out as a “white savior” film – but it was seen by many viewers as a “feel good” story. It was a huge box office success and garnered two Oscar nominations, with Sandra Bullock winning Best Actress for her portrayal of matriarch Leigh Anne Tuohy. But, as always, there seems to have been more to the story…
According to his recent court filing, Oher had always been under the impression that he had been adopted into the Tuohy family. After he had been living with the family for a while, Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy even insisted on Oher calling them mom and dad. A few months after he turned eighteen, according to his suit, the Tuohys asked him and his birth mother to sign a conservatorship agreement, which he was under the impression was the same thing as an adoption. But in reality an adult signing over their legal rights in a conservatorship is in fact very different from an adult adoption, which isn’t an option in all states but is in Tennessee, where Oher and the Tuohys lived. While adult adoptions are often mostly symbolic, a way for an adult child to feel truly brought into an adopting family, the main legal effect they have is on inheritance – allowing the adopted person to become an heir to the family estate. A conservatorship, on the other hand, involves the signing away of one’s rights to make decisions for oneself – from signing contracts to medical decisions and more. Oher is now alleging that, due to the conservatorship, the family was able to profit off of his story and name – from the novel and film about his life, to using his likeness to promote their foundation – while he made nothing. While Oher spoke very highly and lovingly of the Tuohys in the years leading up to and even after the film’s release, he has long been critical about how he was portrayed in the film, telling ESPN in 2015, “People look at me, and they take things away from me because of a movie. They don’t really see the skills and the kind of player I am.” And it seems that in the intervening years, Oher and the family did eventually become estranged. Now that Oher has uncovered the truth about his alleged adoption, it appears that he’s looking to sever ties altogether.
The Tuohys, on the other hand, are saying that they were just trying to help Oher with things like getting a driver’s license and applying to colleges. And that the choice to opt for a conservatorship over an adoption was mainly just a matter of speed, as they were most concerned with finding a way to skirt NCAA rules about school boosters pushing athletes towards the school they make financial contributions to, as Sean Tuohy did at Ole Miss.The main defense their lawyers have given to the press so far has essentially amounted to the Tuohys already being too rich to have any reason to try to take advantage of Oher for their own financial gain. And the Tuohys and The Blind Side author Michael Lewis all maintain that no one made much from the movie thanks to bad Hollywood accounting. Some are also calling into question the validity of Oher’s suit altogether, saying that he’s really just trying to promote his new book and to extort money from the Tuohys.
Lewis himself has also come under fire as clips of him apparently mocking Oher’s intelligence have resurfaced.This has also raised questions about the way Lewis framed Oher in the book. Both the novel and film lean into the idea that Oher was quite unintelligent and unable to care for himself, but as Lewis noted himself Oher made the Dean’s List at Ole Miss, and eventually graduated with a degree in criminal justice. And even though Tennessee state law states that there must be some sort of disability or other incapacity that makes one unable to make decisions for oneself for a conservatorship to be granted, Oher’s outright states that he doesn’t suffer from any sort of mental or physical disability. So the choice to show him as unable to care for or make decisions for himself in the book and film regardless of his being perfectly capable in real life does feel more nefarious now that the conservatorship has been revealed.
Oher’s suit has arrived following a wave of public interest in the many problems with conservatorships that were brought into the spotlight by Britney Spears’ years-long legal battle. So where does Oher’s story now fit into the discussion?
Britney Spears’ long road to freedom from the conservatorship she was placed under in 2008 made headlines for years until she was successful in having it terminated in 2021 and it brought to public attention an issue disability rights advocates have been struggling against for decades: the concerning ease with which one’s rights and control can be taken away based on very vague details (or sometimes, seemingly nothing at all.) The requirements for obtaining a conservatorship vary from state to state, but the main throughline is that the person being put under care is unable to make decisions for themselves, and this is why the guardians must step in. But in practice, advocates point out, this threshold is often not met. People who absolutely do have the ability to know what they do and don’t want to do with their lives, but have a disability or mental health issue that might mean they just need some support in making those decisions, can often see their rights to do so totally stripped away by conservatorship. Lawyer and disability rights advocate Johnathan Martinis, who has helped many people with disabilities regain control of their rights in court, told the Washington Post, “You shouldn’t be able to voluntarily admit you can’t make decisions, because that’s a decision… There should be a backstop to that. There should be a judge who says, ‘Wait a second, how do we know? How do we know this isn’t a devil’s bargain? How do we know this isn’t an overreaction? [...] Maybe the family got advice. How do we know it was good advice?”
The Growing Concern Around Conservatorships
Though the public had been generally aware that Spears was placed in a conservatorship in 2008, most had no idea what that truly entailed until she was finally able to share her side of the story in court and had just assumed that her parents and managers were just doing what was best for her. This assumption that people with disabilities or mental health issues would be “better off” with someone else controlling their lives is part of what has led to it being possible to strip their rights away regardless of their actual capacity for self determination.
And this appears to be what allowed the Tuohys to so easily place Oher under a conservatorship even though he didn’t show any signs of disability or lack of ability to make decisions – he had just had a rough childhood and was in need of some help, and so the court thought he would be “better off” with the Tuohys in complete control of his life. And Oher’s case has the sad added twist that he wasn’t even aware that he was placed under a conservatorship to begin with – he was always under the impression that he had been adopted by the Tuohy family. But according to Martinis, this actually isn’t uncommon – while writing a paper on these so-called “ghost guardianships,” Martinis and his partner found 20 cases in Wyoming alone where people were placed in guardianships without even knowing there was a case against them. Cases like Oher’s shine a light on how important it is that judges are truly assessing if people being placed under conservatorships actually need them, and how necessary it is to have checks and balances within these situations to make sure that there is someone there to advocate for the person in question. It’s easy to assume that conservatorships are only put in place under very strict and dire circumstances, but “ghost guardianships” like Oher’s show that, left unchecked, they’re a danger to everyone’s rights.
As we’ve discussed in our previous video, one of the biggest criticisms of The Blind Side upon its release in 2009 was that it fell hard into the “white savior” trope – where a story that’s meant to be about a person of color actually ends up centering itself around the benevolent actions of a white character. In this case, Oher was sidelined to instead focus on Sandra Bullock’s Leigh Anne as she takes Michael under her wing. While “white savior” stories are often well-intentioned and even attempt to advocate for fairness and unity, their sidelining of the characters of color means that their side of the story is often only shown from the perspective of the white person or even left out entirely, and this can of course lead to huge issues with framing and the sanding away of important nuances and facts within the story. The Blind Side puts forth the same narrative that allowed Oher’s rights to be to easily taken away in real life: that because Oher was poor and homeless, and according to the movie unintelligent, he needed the Tuohys to not only assist him but to take complete control of his life if he was going to have a chance at success. The movie touches on the racism Oher faced within the community, but only as a vehicle to show Leigh Anne shooting it down and coming out as the hero. These types of stories often ignore the systemic nature of injustices and racism in favor of portraying them as issues with individuals, allowing the “white savior” to swoop in and fix everything just by changing a few minds. This creates what some audiences consider “feel good moments,” but at the expense of having real dialogues about the issues at hand.
The Continual Failure Of White Savior Narratives
Oher’s example shows how insidious these types of “white savior” narratives can be in real life, both through the conservatorship controversy and the way even his athletic achievements have been discounted as really just being thanks to Leigh Anne instead of his own abilities. In his 2011 book I Beat the Odds, Oher said of his portrayal in the film, “I could not figure out why the director chose to show me as someone who had to be taught the game of football… I watched those scenes thinking, ‘No, that’s not me at all! I’ve been studying — really studying — the game since I was a kid!’” The film’s framing takes away all of Oher’s agency and diminishes work he put in to succeed. And now that the truth about the conservatorship has come to light, it seems clear that this deprivation of agency wasn’t just a narrative problem in the film but also an injustice happening in real life.
While the Tuohy’s lawyer has said the couple are willing to dissolve the conservatorship immediately in his filing Oher made it clear that he also wants a financial accounting of everything that’s happened with his funds over the nearly 20 years that the Tuohys were in control. Oher has alleged that each family member received a large paycheck and 2.5% of The Blind Side’s net profits, while in a statement the family’s lawyer said that Oher was given “an equal cut of every penny received from The Blind Side.” So the suit is likely to go on for some time as the lawyers on both sides sift through decades of information to uncover the truth. But another aspect of the case that is in some cases being glossed over is the betrayal that Oher likely feels after spending nearly twenty years thinking he had been adopted into a family only to find out that they had the option to truly adopt him but instead chose the path that would give them the most control over him.
More details are sure to come to light as the fact finding continues in the case, but what is clear is that we as a society need to take a deeper look into conservatorships and why courts have made it increasingly possible to take away adults’ legal ability to make decisions for themselves. For every high profile case like Oher’s or Spears’, there are many more happening around the country that we don’t hear about. There are definitely cases where guardianships are useful and can increase quality of life for the people under them, but it shouldn’t be at all possible to strip capable people of the power to make important medical, educational, and contractual decisions in their own lives. These recent cases seeing people break free from long term conservatorships while also raising public awareness about them gives hope that the conversation around them will continue to move forward, and that we will progress towards a world where no one unnecessarily has their rights taken away.