‘Blind Side’ Lawsuit Shows Tensions in the Portrayal of Black Athletes

There is a scene in the movie “The Blind Side” that aims to be an uplifting moment of triumph. Michael Oher, a talented offensive lineman who is black, is having a hard time during a high school football practice, and in steps Leigh Anne Tuohy, a white woman who takes him aside for a pep talk.

Tuohy, who in the film’s retelling took Oher in after seeing him walking on the side of a Memphis-area road on a cold, damp night, recounts an earlier scene in which he “protected her from the city’s drug dealers in a horrible way.” She instructs him to remember that as he does his duty—protecting the quarterback’s blind side—and to view the quarterback and running back as himself and her biological son, Sean Jr.

“Protect the family, Michael,” says Tuohy, played by Sandra Bullock in the 2009 film.

Oher takes the advice and the exercise turns into a montage of his extraordinary physical abilities. He earns loud approval from his teammates and the bemused happiness of his coach, thanks to Tuohy’s family advice.

In real life, Oher — who is suing Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy, the Memphis couple who adopted him into their family at age 16 — has long said he knew more about football than the movie suggested. And his lawsuit filed this week accused the Tuohys of exaggerating the details of their relationship and misleading him into signing away his life story for their benefit.

Attorneys for the Tuohys said Wednesday the family would agree to end a guardianship that began when Oher was 18, but that it was clear all along that Oher, 37, was not adopted. Marty Singer, one of the Tuohys’ attorneys, said in a statement that it was “unbelievable” that the Oher family would defraud after making hundreds of millions of dollars in the restaurant business.

The conservatorship arrangement is a central issue in the case, along with the money made from continuing the Tuohys and Oher’s story.

Michael Lewis, the author of the book on which the film is based, “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game,” said in an interview when asked about the recent dispute and lawsuit that he was saddened and stunned by the claims of Oher.

“What was such a loving event has now been turned into something sad, and it’s so unnecessary,” said Lewis, a childhood friend of Sean Tuohy. “There were no millions of dollars in movie money that neither I nor the Tuohys got.”

The film rights were sold for $250,000, of which Lewis said he kept $70,000 and gave $70,000 to the Tuohys, who split it into five parts among the family members, including Oher. Over the next 15 years, he and the family received additional payments, mostly from net profits, which amounted to about $280,000 for Lewis and $280,000 for the Tuohys.

For many viewers, the film’s depiction—like many Hollywood dramatizations that stretch the truth beyond the creative control of their subjects—embodied a familiar image of black athletes like Oher as more physically than mentally gifted and needing white people like Leigh Anne Tuohy to help them along the way.

“The Leigh Anne Tuohy character plays the white savior trope to a T,” says Jeffrey Montez de Oca, a professor of sociology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, who has researched the intersection of sports and pop culture.

“The Blind Side,” which won Bullock an Academy Award for her performance, earned more than $300 million at the box office and remains one of the most popular sports films of all time, with numerous reruns on cable television.

But it has come under fire as moviegoers and critics have increasingly scrutinized the depictions of black Americans, including athletes, in popular culture and expressed concern that many black viewers and others raised when the film was first released.

In many ways, “The Blind Side” traded on the stereotypical vision of the, shall we say, lost and helpless black athlete, and succeeded in part because the story was so well-known,” said Kevin Wallsten, a professor of politics. science at California State University, Long Beach, who has researched the link between racial resentment and opposition to paying college athletes.

Oher, played by Quinton Aaron in the film, is depicted as extremely athletic, but lacks the mental acuity to understand the complexities of football, and usually requires the help of other – white – characters. In one scene, Sean Tuohy Jr., a child at the time, leads Oher through a series of plays on a dinner table, using salt shakers and spices as stand-ins for players on the roster.

Oher has said that the portrayal affected how NFL teams perceived him, which damaged his career. Before the 2009 draft, ESPN analyst Todd McShay said that he received two negative reports from teams about Oher’s character, calling him one of the riskiest potential draft candidates.

“References to using ketchup bottles as my knowledge of the game — a scene many will remember from the movie — would make many teams hesitate,” Oher said in his new memoir, “When Your Back’s Against The Wall.”

It’s been about two decades since Oher first stepped onto the field at Briarcrest Christian School in real life, before the Tuohys took him in. Much has changed since then. Oher has earned nearly $35 million playing in the NFL, won a Super Bowl and fathered four children. The country’s understanding of the inherent racial dynamics in sports has changed, too.

“It’s a completely different context and it’s fascinating to see how American culture is revisiting the story of ‘The Blind Side’ with this 20-year interlude,” Wallsten said.

A 1993 article in The Sociology of Sport Journal found that college students perceived black student athletes as less intelligent, had poorer grades, and were academically unprepared for college, compared to white athletes.

One of Wallsten’s papers, co-authored with Tatishe Nteta and Lauren McCarthy, finds that the slight increase in support for paying student athletes between 2014 and 2020 was driven by changing views on racial issues among white liberals.

Oher stated in his lawsuit that one of the most painful revelations about his relationship with the Tuohys was that they had never fully adopted him, even though he had believed and repeatedly claimed so.

The book and the film expressed that paternalistic impression.

“Leigh Anne Tuohy tried to do for a boy what economists had tried, with little success, to do for less developed countries for the past fifty years,” Lewis said in the book. “Kicking him off one growth path and onto another. Give him a kick start.”

Alexandra Alter contributed to the reporting.

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