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— Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) August 26, 2023
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…
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…
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…
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….
An unsympathetic reader might imagine that the Tuohys figure they ‘bought’ a valuable sports animal, the way another couple might buy a promising young Thoroughbred from an obscure Kentucky farm to race in the Derby — and they did it at a real bargain price, too!
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.
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…
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…
… 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.
There’s also another kind of implied nastiness here that i didn’t talk about i the column: this guy assumes his genes would be better than that of any kid he might adopt.
— Elizabeth Spiers (@espiers) August 28, 2023