In summer 2004, the family who inspired the hit movie “The Blind Side” became concerned they were at risk of running afoul of NCAA rules.
Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy feared that taking in Michael Oher might be construed as an act of bribery — rather than parental love — if he chose to play for their alma mater.
By NCAA rules, the Tuohys would have been regarded as Ole Miss boosters because of their significant donations to their alma mater. Sean, a former all-SEC point guard, and Leigh Anne, a former Ole Miss cheerleader, in recognition of their “continuous support.”
That booster classification became a potential headache for the Tuohys when they opened their doors to Oher and the once-homeless teen blossomed into a prized offensive line prospect while living under their roof. The NCAA from even contacting prospects, let alone providing food, clothes, shelter and the groundwork for a new life.
Oher could have rendered this issue moot had he spurned interest from Ole Miss and accepted a scholarship from LSU, Tennessee or one of numerous other major-conference programs that offered. Instead, the 6-foot-4, 344-pound manchild kept listing Ole Miss among his top choices even as he began to narrow his options.
An attorney for the Tuohys told Yahoo Sports that Sean and Leigh Anne didn’t pressure Oher to sign with Ole Miss but they wanted to keep the option available for him. Steve Farese Sr. said it’s his understanding that the Tuohys proposed legal guardianship to Oher, then 18, as “a way to circumvent the NCAA problem.”
On August 9, 2004, the Tuohys joined Oher and Oher’s birth mother in petitioning a Tennessee court to appoint Sean and Leigh Anne as Oher’s co-conservators. The court approved the conservatorship the following December, clearing a path for Oher to verbally commit to Ole Miss on January 18, 2005, and put that in ink on signing day 15 days later.
Whether that conservatorship was ever appropriate is under newfound scrutiny now that .
In a petition filed to a Tennessee court on Aug. 14, Oher said he was “falsely advised” by the Tuohys that, because he was already 18, “the legal action to adopt him would have to be called a conservatorship, but it was, for all intents and purposes, an adoption.” Oher claims that he didn’t discover until February that the conservatorship required him to surrender to the Tuohys the legal authority to negotiate business deals in his name.
Oher is asking the court to end the conservatorship, to bar the Tuohys from using his name and likeness and to award him his share of the money from the best-selling book and Oscar-winning film based on his life. The by describing the lawsuit as just another “shakedown” by Oher to extract money from the family.
“Sean and Leigh Anne have made an extraordinary amount of money in the restaurant business,” the statement continued. “The notion that a couple worth hundreds of millions of dollars would connive to withhold a few thousand dollars in profit participation payments from anyone — let alone from someone they loved as a son — defies belief.”
The back-and-forth between attorneys drains much of the charm from what once was hailed as an uplifting, feel-good story.
Oher was born to a crack-addicted mother and an absentee father. For much of his childhood, he had no permanent home and inadequate education. It was after moving in with the Tuohys at age 16 that Oher found his footing in the classroom and began to unlock his NFL potential on the football field.
By his senior year of high school, Oher had become one of the nation’s top offensive line prospects — a long-armed, nimble-footed giant who looked like he was engineered in a lab to play left tackle in the NFL. A parade of college football coaches dropped by Oher’s tiny Memphis-area private school to deliver recruiting pitches.
In his , Oher describes committing to Ole Miss over Tennessee and LSU as a weight off his shoulders.
“I prayed about my choice a lot because there didn’t seem to be a clear-cut sense of one being a good school and another being a bad school,” he wrote. “I felt like wherever I chose to go would be a good decision.”
As for naming the Tuohys his legal conservators, Oher wrote in 2011 that “it kind of felt like a formality” since he’d been “part of the family for more than a year at that point.” At that time, he displayed little understanding of the legal differences between a conservatorship and adoption.
“[The Tuoys] explained to me that it means pretty much the exact same thing as ‘adoptive parents,’ ” Oher wrote, “but that the laws were just written in a way that took my age into account.”
Asked last week why the family chose to seek a conservatorship rather than an adoption, Sean Tuohy that he and Leigh Anne based their decision on the legal advice they received. Sean said, “We contacted lawyers who had told us that we couldn’t adopt over the age of 18; the only thing we could do was to have a conservatorship.”
Multiple family attorneys in Tennessee told Yahoo Sports that the advice Sean says he received was incorrect and the Tuohys could have adopted Oher at 18 as long as they had his consent. As Nashville-based attorney Lisa Collins put it, “Adult adoption is allowed in Tennessee. It’s been the same law since I started practicing 30 years ago.”
It’s Farese’s understanding that efficiency was a key reason the Tuohys chose conservatorship over adoption. Farese, who was not the Tuohys attorney back in 2004, told Yahoo Sports that the Tuohys had a “short window of time” before national signing day and that they were under the impression the adoption process could drag on too long.
While the adoption of a minor in Tennessee requires extensive background checks, the consent of the birth parents and a formal home study by a licensed child placing agency, attorney Jeff Stern of Sevierville, Tennessee, said, “It’s a much easier process with an adult.”
“If the adult wants to be adopted,” Stern said, “then the court’s going to let them be adopted.”
Stern said that, in his experience, families typically resort to conservatorships for loved ones who are unable to take care of themselves. Oher’s petition states that he had “no diagnosed physical or psychological disabilities” when the conservatorship began and that he remains “capable of handling his own affairs.”
The way one source with knowledge of the NCAA enforcement process sees it, the Tuohys may not have needed to legally formalize their relationship with Oher for him to be eligible to play for Ole Miss. The source believes NCAA investigators would have taken into account Oher’s “horrible situation” and the fact that the Tuohys formed a relationship with him and opened their home to him before he became an elite prospect.
“That’s got to be part of the calculus of figuring out whether that family relationship overrides their status as a booster,” the source said. “In this case, because they essentially became a parental force in his life, that would seem to override any accusation that they’re somehow steering him.”
Even so, the NCAA enforcement source concedes that a conservatorship or legal adoption would have removed all doubt.
“If someone is going to go through a legal proceeding to take on legal responsibility for another individual, the NCAA has to respect that,” the source said.
Nearly two decades after the Tuohys chose to seek that conservatorship, it’s at the center of a legal proceeding, along with how much money that the Tuohys and Oher have pocketed from the success of the movie.
Oher’s petition casts the Tuohys as villains who lied about adopting him to “enrich themselves” at his expense. The attorney for the Tuohys counters that a paper trail will show that “no money has been hidden” and that “everything was distributed properly.”
“The truth of the matter is that there’s this conservatorship out there that everyone had just forgotten about,” Farese said. “This piece of paper has had no effect on Michael to execute his own professional contract or choose his own agent. It has not prevented him from doing anything.”