Former offensive lineman Michael Oher’s petition against Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy states that he made no money from Michael Lewis’ 2006 book The Blind Side or the 2009 film adaptation. The movie starred Sandra Bullock, was optioned for $250,000 (plus a share of profits), and grossed over $300 million. You probably saw it. Maybe you even got a bit teary.
The story of a white family who “took in” a Black athlete living in poverty has been described as a case of “white saviordom,” and who could have foreseen this outcome? Perhaps Steve Almond, as we’ll see.
Among other things, Oher claims that he never agreed to “sell” his story and has asked for a share of profits.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Moneyball author Lewis offered his view on the petition as the journalist who embedded himself with the family, showing sympathy for the Tuohys, estimating that he and members of the Tuohy family had each received around $350,000 from the film, and asserting that Oher “declined” his royalty checks.
He told the Post:
“They showered him with resources and love. That he’s suspicious of them is breathtaking. The state of mind one has to be in to do that—I feel sad for him.”
At issue is the conservatorship that the Tuohy family created to manage Oher’s money. Oher says he was told it was simply part of the adoption process, while Lewis told Post reporters Ben Strauss and Molly Hensley-Clancy that he believed the Tuohy family “chose a conservatorship for Oher because the process was quicker than traditional adoption.”
Muddying matters is the relationship between Lewis and Sean Tuohy, who were friends prior to Lewis reporting and writing what would become The Blind Side.
A 2006 review by Steve Almond in the L.A. Times raised this very question:
As I tore through the book, I kept wondering how Lewis got such remarkable access to the Tuohys; and I also wondered, why does he take such an uncritical view of their role? The author’s note at the end provides the obvious explanation, stating that Lewis is a friend of Sean Tuohy’s and that they had been longtime classmates at the same New Orleans school.
He also wrote that: “for all her Christian charity, Leigh Anne seems to treat her adopted son more like a giant kachina doll than a human being.”
Not for nothing, the Society for Professional Journalists’ ethical code states that reporters should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.”
The link might not be terrribly overt, but in considering who owns a story, and what a journalist owes a subject, there are shades of prior debates: Alexis Nowicki’s claim that Kristen Roupenian stole details from her life to write Cat Person, and the “Bad Art Friend” battle over IP between writers Dawn Dorland and Sonya Larson. (Recall Lauren Groff’s beautiful tweet: “I have held every human I’ve ever met upside down by the ankles and shaken every last detail that I can steal out of their pockets.”)
Of course these were fictionalized stories, which Lewis’s work is not. Lewis’s ethical burden was greater.
Gotta hand it to him, it’s a hell of a story.