If you’ve been, you know, out in the world this week, you’ve probably heard that Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball, The Blind Side, The Big Short, and numerous other best sellers, has a new book out this week, Going Infinite, about the rise and fall of the cryptocurrency exchange FTX and it’s founder, Sam Bankman-Fried. You may have even seen Lewis on TV this week, laughing, and insisting that Bankman-Fried isn’t actually a criminal mastermind who commingled eight billion dollars of his customers’ money with his own. No! He’s just a harmless nerd who loves video games and Tom Brady and doesn’t even own a suit. How adorable.
Watching Lewis insist, on show after show, that Bankman-Fried is just a lovable dork with no idea how to run a company (maybe don’t volunteer to take other people’s money, then?) got me wondering how many of the Lewis’ infamous stories we consumed through a very specific Lewis lens. And then this happened.
Michael Oher, the homeless teen who made his way to Division I football and, eventually, the NFL, had his story memorialized in the Lewis book, and eventual Hollywood blockbuster The Blind Side. Both the book and movie tell the story of how the Tuohy family took Oher into their home, adopted him into their family, and eventually won Sandra Bullock an Oscar.
Judge dissolves Tuohys’ conservatorship
But real life rarely ends as well as a Hollywood movie, and just this week, a Tennessee judge dissolved the conservatorship the Tuohys had established for Oher, after Oher claimed that they tricked him into believing they were adopting him when, in fact, all they were doing was gaining control over his finances.
The conservatorship was established when Oher was just 18, and the judge who ended it had plenty to say about how it was ever established in the first place, given that Oher was legally an adult and had no diagnosed physical, or intellectual disability:
(The Judge) said she was disturbed that such an agreement was ever reached. She said she had never seen in her 43-year career a conservatorship agreement reached with someone who was not disabled.
“I cannot believe it got done,” she said.
But it gets worse from there. It turns out that while The Blind Side raked in half a billion dollars at the box office, Oher says he received no money from the movie. According to ESPN, Oher’s petition to end the conservatorship claims that the Tuohys “used their power as conservators to strike a deal that paid them and their two birth children millions of dollars in royalties from an Oscar-winning film that earned more than $300 million, while Oher got nothing for a story ‘that would not have existed without him.’”
Oher also alleges that the Tuohys negotiated a deal for themselves and their “natural born” children Sean Jr. and Collins for “a contract price of $225,000 plus 2.5 percent of all future ‘Defined Net Proceeds’” from The Blind Side. Oher also says the Tuohys finagled a $200,000 donation to their Making It Happen Foundation.
Of course, while Lewis is out defending Bankman-Fried, not many journalists are asking him about the discrepancies between what he wrote in The Blind Side and the way Michael Oher viewed the entire situation. So yesterday, I sat down with a copy of that along with Oher’s first book, I Beat the Odds: From Homelessness to The Blind Side and Beyond, to see if there were any clues that could have alerted readers that all was not what it seemed when it came to TNT’s favorite feel-good white savior story (seriously, it’s on TNT like every week).
What The Blind Side didn’t tell us
The first thing I learned is that Michael Lewis was childhood friends with Sean Tuohy, the patriarch, and white knight of The Blind Side, who was lucky enough to have Tim McGraw cast to play him. I scoured the book to see if that’s disclosed anywhere and, if it is, I couldn’t find it, but it was possibly buried amongst the eight pages of blurbs praising Lewis. In fact, Oher met Michael Lewis before he had even moved in with the Tuohys permanently, according to Oher’s book.
The second thing I discovered was that Oher has been estranged from the Tuohys for a decade, which means the problems started a few years after the movie came out in 2009.
The further I went in the book, the more I noticed the way Lewis repeatedly mocked Oher’s size, saying Oher was so big that the football coaches had to put him on a cattle scale to weigh him. He barely fit through doorways! Pro football players didn’t even have clothes that fit him! And there was this gem from Leigh Anne Touhy, Sean’s wife, who told Lewis that she had to get Oher a futon to sleep on, that he was so big he “was ruining my ten-thousand dollar couch!” There’s a lot made about how much money the Tuohy’s have in the book, much more so than the movie.
The other thing that jumps out in the book, and in the movie as well, is that Lewis really leans into how dumb Oher supposedly was. Oher himself was bothered by the depiction, saying in I Beat the Odds, “I understand there are certain things you have to do to make a story work as a movie…I like the movie as a movie, but in terms of it representing me, that’s where I had a hard time loving it. I felt like it portrayed me as dumb instead of a kid who had never had consistent academic instruction and ended up thriving once he got it.”
The book is even worse. It repeatedly talks about Oher’s supposed IQ of 80, well below average, without ever discussing the racial bias inherently built into IQ tests. Yes, his grades were abysmal when he first began at the private Briarcrest Christian School in tony East Memphis, but while Lewis does point out that Oher had gone to 11 different schools by his sophomore year, and had voluminous absences at most of them, he still seems to revel in Oher’s cluelessness about the rich, white world he finds himself in. He doesn’t know how to take a test! He has no experience with the menus of Italian food! He would show up for class without his books! He didn’t even have gym clothes! He was flunking weightlifting! Perhaps it’s the clearer lens of hindsight, but the descriptions of Oher struggling to fit in begin to feel less revelatory, and more mean-spirited.
There are also lots of differences between the book and the movie, which is baffling, given that Michael Lewis also worked on the screenplay, according to Oher’s book. The most notable difference being that, before moving in permanently with the Tuohys, there were several families in the school district that Oher stayed with regularly, and that the Tuohys didn’t teach Oher about football. He had already played for another high school as a freshman, and Oher actually fancied himself a basketball player first. He played basketball and ran track at Briarcrest before he ever stepped on a football field. Also, the clueless coach who doesn’t know how to handle Oher in the movie? That coach was actually Hugh Freeze, who coincidentally timed his rise to college coach right alongside Oher’s ascension to the DI ranks. Oher calls him “The Snake.”
Who was protecting Michael Oher’s blind side?
While both the book and the movie make the Tuohys look like the real stars, there are some really cringey moments in the book, like when Leigh Anne tells Oher following the death of his father, “I hope this doesn’t sound callous and cold to you, but you didn’t know the man. You know, this might be better, because one way or another you are going to have money, and you know that he would have found you, and made claims upon you.” You can’t help but notice how Sandra Bullock didn’t deliver that line in the movie.
There’s also the moment when Sean Tuohy says, “It was like God made a child just for us. Sports for me, neat for Leigh Anne.” Double yikes. Oher also takes issue with comments he attributes to Leigh Anne that, had the Tuohys not taken him in, he’d either be dead from shooting or the bodyguard to some gang leader. But the Tuohys weren’t the only people looking after Oher when he was in school. In fact, The Blind Side begins with “Big Tony,” (I’m not sure we ever get his full name) driving his son and Oher out of inner city Memphis in search of a private school that can accommodate them both.
Ironically enough, the person Oher singles out as having had the biggest role in helping him succeed is “Big Sue,” his “incredibly dedicated, incredibly wise, incredibly patient tutor.” After many years of rigorous tutoring, Oher got all As, and Bs his senior year of high school, and made the Chancellor’s List at Ole Miss more than once, both of which are obviously great points of pride for Oher. But Michael Lewis had thoughts on Oher’s college grades, too. In 2007, Lewis told an audience about Oher: “Google him now, he’s on the dean’s list at Ole Miss, which says a lot about the dean’s list at Ole Miss.” Raucous laughter broke out. Hilarious.
The adoption that never was
If Oher needed any ammunition for his claim that the Tuohys led him to believe they were formally adopting him — when they were actually just taking control over his money — he need look no further than Lewis’ own words, who wrote in The Blind Side that Oher “of course told Leigh Anne and Sean that he really liked Ole Miss — but only after Leigh Anne and Sean explained to him that, if he had any intention of going to Ole Miss, the really ought to go through the process, or formally adopting him, so that the many gifts they had already bestowed on him might be construed not as boosters’ graft, but parental love.”
Oher did go to Ole Miss. The Tuohys did not adopt him.
My purpose in going back and rereading Lewis’ book alongside Oher’s first book was to see if the relationship came off differently, now that the legal allegations are out in the open. And it does. In fact, it becomes fairly obvious that Lewis, who was visiting his childhood friend Sean Tuohy, encountered a high school kid with a great story, and took off reporting on it without much consideration for Oher’s feelings on the matter. Lewis was already well into digging into Oher’s backstory while, according to Oher, he was still wondering who the guy asking so many questions about him was. “For a long time, though, I was pretty unaware of what Lewis was doing as he tried to get my story right for his book,” Oher writes. “Besides, I had tried to put a lot of stuff out of my mind in order to make it to where I was.”
It’s not a great look. For Lewis or the Tuohys or Hugh Freeze, who clearly saw Oher as his golden ticket to the coaching ranks of big-time college football. And while there is a story in The Blind Side, I’m not sure it’s the one we’ve all been sold. For Lewis to suggest that Oher’s legal action is the result of head injuries, suggesting that Oher is violent, and aggressive, when all he appears to be is angry, is beyond the pale. But it’s not like Michael Lewis doesn’t have something at stake here, as well. He stands to lose credibility as a journalist and author.
In hindsight, Oher’s story is not just about the Tuohys, but about a whole host of adults who saw Michael Oher as a means to an end, and that includes Michael Lewis.
Original source here
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