(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There’s something ineffably sad about the petition filed by former NFL star Michael Oher against Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy. The story of how the White family took the Black teenager into their home and raised him as their own was turned to magic in the film The Blind Side, based on the Michael Lewis book. Sandra Bullock won the Academy Award for Best Actress.
But here’s what Oher now says to the Tennessee probate court: “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.” It’s the Britney Spears case all over again; except that Spears at least knew that she was under a conservatorship. Oher says he didn’t.
Is all of it true? Some of it? None of it? We’re outsiders, and can’t know. We shouldn’t rush to judgment, and members of the family have denied taking advantage of Oher. But if, as Oher alleges, he was never adopted by the Tuohys — if instead they’ve been his conservators and used him to make money for themselves — then the legal consequences of his petition could be considerable.
Conservators owe a fiduciary duty to the person entrusted to their care — known as the “ward” — to manage the ward’s assets only for the ward’s own benefit. Violating the duty can bring a heavy penalty. In 2013, a Tennessee lawyer was sentenced to 18 years in prison after he admitted stealing some $1.4 million from clients for whom he served as conservator.
Moreover, in Tennessee, as in most states, it’s not up to the ward to prove that any particular transaction was inconsistent with the conservatorship. If the conservator makes money from the ward’s assets, the burden of proof runs the other way.
What this means in practice is that if, as the petition alleges, Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy benefitted financially from deals they made while serving as Oher’s co-conservators, the burden isn’t on Oher to show wrongdoing; it’s on the Tuohys to show that the transactions were legitimate. And legitimacy, again, means that the transactions were in the best interest not of the Tuohys, but of Oher.
They may have an uphill battle. The petition alleges that Oher received nothing from the sale of the film rights. While the Tuohys could argue that they were selling their own story, not Oher’s, that argument isn’t very persuasive.
Equally troubling is the claim that the Tuohys control the right to Oher’s name, image, and likeness — key tools for enriching athletes — and that they continue to make money from those rights. In the petition, Oher repudiates a 2007 agreement purporting to transfer those rights, insisting that if indeed he signed the document, he got nothing in return, and nobody explained the legal significance.
In short, the allegations in Oher’s petition are serious indeed.
Yet there are oddities.
For one thing, the petition makes no mention of Oher’s earnings during his years in the NFL. According to Sportrac, he signed four separate deals between 2009 and 2019, the total guaranteed portion of which was more than $28 million. Did Oher sign his own contracts? Bank his own money? Buy a house or a car? A ward under conservatorship in theory lacks legal capacity to do those things. Yet the petition nowhere accuses Sean and Lee Anne Tuohy of trying to control that large pot of money. (The usual rule is that contracts made by a ward are enforceable unless voided by the conservator.)
For another, although The Blind Side is often described as the story of a White couple who adopted a Black sports star (including by the Tuohys), neither book nor movie suggests that an adoption took place. The word used instead, over and over, is “guardian.” The film includes a scene where Leigh Anne expressly rejects the notion of adopting Oher, because he’s about to turn 18.
I’m not doubting the petition’s claim that Oher thought he was being adopted; perhaps, as he insists, he was misled by that promise into signing the conservatorship papers. According to the petition, he thought the papers were “a necessary step in the adoption process.” And in his 2012 memoir, I Beat the Odds, Oher writes that although “Sean and Leigh Anne would be named as my ‘legal conservators,’” he makes clear that he relied on their assurances: “They explained to me that it means pretty much the exact same thing as ‘adoptive parents.’” Only in February 2023, says the petition, did Oher discover that he had actually signed conservancy papers.
Given all of this, Oher’s petition asks for surprisingly little. He wants the conservatorship dissolved. He wants an accounting for the monies he believes the Tuohys made from his name and story. If his allegations are true, this is the minimum he’s owed.
Conservatorships aren’t evil in and of themselves. Sometimes they’re the only way to care for people truly unable to attend to their own affairs. But the responsibility requires close monitoring because the potential for self-dealing is not insignificant. That’s why probate courts require the regular financial reports that Oher alleges the Tuohys have failed to file.
Still, I find myself hoping that the allegations aren’t true, that it’s all some sort of misunderstanding. At the time Oher moved into the Tuohy home, rumors were swirling of well-to-do White families adopting talented Black kids and persuading them to play sports at the parents’ alma maters. The NCAA investigation of this possibility is basically where the movie starts. The “feel good” aspect of Oher’s story is supposed to be that in this case, the love was real. If it all turns out to have been a sham — well, that’s about the saddest ending The Blind Side could have.
More From Stephen L. Carter at Bloomberg Opinion:
- When a Thumbs-Up Emoji Gets a Defendant a Thumbs-Down
- Harvard Business School May Struggle to Beat Professor’s Lawsuit
- Simon Ateba Is Right to Fight His White House Ban
Want more Bloomberg Opinion? Terminal readers head to OPIN <GO>. Or subscribe to our daily newsletter.
To contact the author of this story:
Stephen L. Carter at [email protected]