When the movie “The Blind Side” came out in 2009, I watched it with fascination because it overlapped with three big parts of my life.
It’s the story of Michael Oher, a young Black athlete who moves in with a white family, the Tuohys, and goes on to play for Ole Miss and in the N.F.L. I grew up in Alabama, where college football is the dominant mode of sports fandom (you’re either an Auburn fan or an Alabama fan, and there are no other options). I was adopted, as Mr. Oher believed himself to have been. And I’m a former equity analyst who’s a fan of Michael Lewis, the author of the book on which the movie was based. His writing often takes on complex subjects — collateralized debt obligations, for example — and explains them in ways that are accessible and memorable.
But both the book and the movie tell Mr. Oher’s story in a way that conforms to insidious stereotypes about Black athletes as well as about adoptions of Black kids by white parents. Those stereotypes, and the possibility that there is another very different way to tell his story, are at the center of the lawsuit Mr. Oher recently filed. On its surface, the lawsuit is about money, but beneath that lie profound and troubling questions about what Black Americans are permitted to own and what they are expected to owe.
Mr. Oher, now 37 and retired from the N.F.L., is suing the Tuohys because he claims they misled him to believe that the legal conservatorship they held over him was essentially the same as adoption. He also says they benefited financially from the film, sold his life rights and did not compensate him adequately. Most of all, however, he seems angry at the way he was portrayed by people who purported to care about him — as a poor, unintelligent Black kid who succeeded primarily because he lived with the Tuohys for a year during high school.
In one particularly cringe-worthy scene in the movie, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy’s young son, Sean Jr., moves a bottle of ketchup to illustrate a football play, explaining to Mr. Oher how football works. Mr. Oher is at that time a teenager, but the boy speaks as if Mr. Oher is a toddler who’s having trouble identifying a farm animal.
It seems that it was particularly important to Mr. Lewis to cast Mr. Oher as intellectually inferior. In an interview in 2007, Mr. Lewis said that Mr. Oher was on the dean’s list at Ole Miss, “which says a lot about the dean’s list at Ole Miss.” He went on to say that big football schools take athletes, “many of whom are from the underclass or Black kids from ghettos around America,” and put them in easy majors to ensure that they can keep their G.P.A.s up. At Ole Miss, he said, “all the poor Black football players are majoring in criminal justice.”
I don’t know if criminal justice is an easy major, but it did not seem to occur to Mr. Lewis that poor Black football players might be interested in it because young Black men are disproportionately targeted by a criminal justice system that is particularly brutal to poor people.
Mr. Oher graduated in 2009, having indeed made the honor roll.
As the lawsuit states, Mr. Oher wasn’t technically adopted, but the Tuohys’ story is that he might as well have been. By welcoming him into their family, “The Blind Side” suggests, they rescued him from an inevitable life of prison and poverty.
But the route the Tuohys chose to legalize their relationship was unconventional and raises questions about their motivations. The Tuohys had a close relationship with the University of Mississippi; they are boosters and co-chairs for its fund-raising campaign. If Mr. Oher chose to go to Ole Miss, the fact that the Tuohys had provided him with food, clothes and shelter could be perceived as violating the N.C.A.A. recruitment rules. (This would have been a nonissue if Mr. Oher had gone anywhere else.)
The Tuohys say they chose a conservatorship, which gave them control over Mr. Oher’s affairs, because Mr. Oher was 18 at the time and could not be adopted. But according to Abby Rubenfeld, a civil rights and family law attorney in Nashville, adult adoption in Tennessee requires nothing more than the adoptee’s consent and relatively minor paperwork.
Because Mr. Oher wasn’t actually adopted, he’s not entitled to the privileges or potential inheritances the Tuohys’ biological children enjoy. Mr. Lewis did write that Mr. Oher’s “share in the Tuohy estate came to millions,” but even amid all this negative publicity, neither the Tuohys nor Mr. Oher has given any indication that that is indeed the case. The Tuohys, via a lawyer, declined to comment. This month, a lawyer representing them told The Washington Post that the couple “have always been upfront about how a conservatorship (from which not one penny was received) was established to assist with Mr. Oher’s needs.” Mr. Oher’s lawyer did not respond to an inquiry.
The Tuohys were already wealthy, but “The Blind Side” made them wealthier. They insist that they saw no real money from the film, but they went on to monetize their story via books and appearances. Beyond the money, they benefited in ways that are difficult to explain to anyone who lives outside the Deep South, where college football is practically a religion, good season tickets are a major status symbol, and your preferred college mascot is an acceptable major theme for home décor.
Considering the other Division I schools that showed up to recruit Mr. Oher, Ole Miss wasn’t remotely the best choice for Mr. Oher. But surely it was for the Tuohys. For college football boosters, an association with a star recruit offers a special kind of status, a prestige comparable to owning a small yacht or having been invited to the White House.
If you only saw the movie, you’d think the person most responsible for Mr. Oher’s success is Leigh Anne Tuohy. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest otherwise, however. Before his time with the Tuohys, Mr. Oher lived with a guy called Big Tony, who was neither white nor wealthy but was the person who brought Mr. Oher to Briarcrest Christian School in Memphis to try to get him a better education. Tom Lemming is the college football scout who saw a tape of Mr. Oher and put him on his list of top recruits because he thought Mr. Oher had the makings of an excellent left tackle, a valuable position that was hard to fill. Mr. Lemming’s report is what led to a flood of coaches from Division I teams showing up at Briarcrest to watch Mr. Oher play.
Mr. Lewis, a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy’s, has described Mr. Oher’s suspicion of the couple as “breathtaking.”
As an adoptee myself, I can take a pretty good guess at why Mr. Oher is upset, as well as why he waited this long to come forward. It’s insulting to be told that you’d have amounted to nothing were it not for the people who took you in. It’s a common perception, though, and people don’t hesitate to convey it to you.
I am often told that I am lucky, that I got a “second chance” and that I should be grateful my adopted parents took me in. People who say these things are often well intentioned, but what they’re saying is patronizing and wrong.
I am not particularly lucky, or I wouldn’t have needed to be adopted in the first place. And no one has ever asked my two younger brothers, who are not adopted, if they feel grateful to have parents. For adoptees, there’s a downside to voicing how insulting all this is; we don’t want to be viewed as ungrateful or entitled, even if we think the expectation of gratitude is unwarranted. We also have to reconcile speaking about our resentment that we’re expected to be grateful with the way we feel about our adoptive parents and not wanting to hurt them because they, too, often have those expectations. Because of these things, Mr. Oher probably wrestled with whether to say anything for a very long time.
It is often in the interests of adoptive parents and the adoption industry to imply that adoption is charity work, rather than something that benefits the adoptive parents as well.
This perception of adoption as an act of altruism is exponentially more pronounced when Black kids are adopted by white parents. Mythologizing the role of those parents goes beyond just suggesting that adoptees are second-best choices to biological children. It implies that Black children need to be rescued by white people, and that makes white people feel good about doing it.
This is often referred to as “white savior syndrome,” which makes it sound like mild arrogance or a convenient delusion. I believe that’s too generous. The idea that Black children are automatically better off with nice white parents than their own biological parents is just white supremacy, which does not have to be produced by official hate groups to be insidious. It is often banal, and so commonplace that its ubiquitousness renders it just part of the background. It doesn’t always arrive wearing a white pointed hood or muttering racial slurs; it’s often just a presumption of white benevolence.
Nowhere is this more apparent than at schools like Briarcrest, which were founded amid desegregation by people who regarded themselves as nice white parents and who did not want their children to attend school with Black children. These schools were informally known as segregation academies, and when they were finally integrated, it was often via football.
I went to one of these academies in Elmore, Ala. When I graduated in 1995, there were 33 students in my class, and they were all white. Edgewood Academy was a K-12 school founded in 1967, and it won seven state football championships under the coaching of Bobby Carr, who brought players to Edgewood on scholarship. Prince Tega Wanogho moved from Nigeria to attend Edgewood. He was supposed to start on the basketball team, but moved to football; after a year, he was recruited by Auburn University. This year he was part of the Kansas City Chiefs squad that won the Super Bowl.
This is a common arc for former segregation academies where sports are highly valued — and that’s most segregation academies. Black kids are not given football scholarships because those schools want to integrate; they’re given scholarships because the schools want to build successful football programs on the backs of Black bodies.
In “The Blind Side,” I found only passing mention of the history of schools like Briarcrest, and only a minimal paragraph about Leigh Anne Tuohy’s views on race, which he says evolved from her childhood upbringing, when her father referred to Black people with a racial epithet. The Tuohys don’t regard themselves as racist, and Mr. Lewis doesn’t see them that way either, but the book and the film portray Mr. Oher in ways that serve to reinforce racist stereotypes. It’s not unusual to discuss the physique of great athletes, but Mr. Oher is referred to repeatedly as a “freak of nature,” and Mr. Lewis insinuates that he’s not mentally capable of understanding simple things. In the book, Mr. Oher is portrayed as literally not knowing what an ocean is.
Mr. Oher deserves, at the very least, the benefit of the assumptions made about the Tuohys’ biological children: that he is talented and capable and deserves the bulk of credit for his own success. The Tuohys may have helped him, but they did not rescue him, and he does not owe them his story. If you’re an N.F.L. fan, you’d probably know who Michael Oher is even if he had never met Leigh Anne Tuohy. The reverse is not true.
Elizabeth Spiers, a contributing Opinion writer, is a journalist and digital media strategist.
Source photograph by Scott Boehm, via Associated Press.
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