Dr. King once wrote, “The time is always right to do what’s right.”
That’s true even when doing right is complex, difficult, and risky. But in doing right, we must continually rely on the truth to guide us, even when those truths come from unlikely sources. If we boldly forge onward, interpreting any criticism or opposition as proof of the rightness of our cause, we risk being blindsided by the things we don’t see coming.
Just ask Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy.
The Tuohys have been in the news recently as defendants in a widely publicized lawsuit by former NFL player Michael Oher. If those names seem familiar, it’s because the story of Oher’s development as an offensive tackle were chronicled in Michael Lewis’s bestselling book The Blind Side, which was eventually adapted into a feature film starring Sandra Bullock, whose depiction of Leigh Anne won her an Oscar.
The basic facts of the story are without dispute. Michael Oher had a tumultuous childhood, and during his high school years was taken in by the Tuohy family, who offered him love, support, and shelter in his pursuit of football. Oher eventually earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Mississippi, which paved the way for his selection as a first-round draft pick by the Baltimore Ravens NFL team. The heartwarming story of Oher’s adoption by the Tuohys played a large part in the success of Lewis’s book, which prompted the film adaptation.
Except that Oher now says it was based on a lie.
After his NFL career concluded, Oher took some time to look into the tumultuous beginning of his professional football career and made a startling discovery. The court documents that he thought were adoption papers instead granted Sean and Leigh Anne legal conservatorship over Oher’s financial affairs. In August, Oher sued the Tuohys to recover the money he felt he was owed for the success of the film. After an avalanche of negative publicity, the Tuohys agreed to end the conservatorship. But according to Oher, the damage had already been done. Over the years Oher repeatedly suggested that he never felt the film did his story justice. NFL commentator Domonique Foxworth was a teammate of Oher’s and said in a recent episode of his podcast that he avoided seeing the film because Oher spoke so negatively about it.
And as a Black man, I can see why. Despite its immense popularity and commercial success, The Blind Side was criticized, even back in 2009, for its white savior tropes. The idea that Oher’s success is due mostly to the Tuohys is offensive because it ignores Oher’s agency in his own story. Although grateful for their help, Oher says he was already quite skilled at football and determined to succeed when he met Sean and Leigh Anne. He bristled at sequences in the film that implied he had to be taught basic skills and ideas.
Movies like The Blind Side and The Help, another hit film from the same era, remain popular with white audiences because they suggest that the problems of racism—intractable issues like systemic inequity in education, housing, law enforcement, and criminal justice—can be solved by token gestures of largesse from the wealthy. Though their motives might have been pure at the time, the Tuohys’ methods were still informed by the kind of unspoken racist assumptions and practices that justify negotiating a six-figure sum for a young man’s story and only giving him a small portion of the proceeds.
And as ugly as this story appears to be, one sure way to compound the tragedy is to learn the wrong lesson from it. For many high profile wealthy white people, the lesson seems to be, “If those people are ungrateful for my help, I’d rather not give it.” Consider a quote that got author Scott Adams in hot water, prompting a slew of cancellations of his once-popular newspaper comic strip Dilbert: “I think it makes no sense whatsoever, as a white citizen of America, to try to help Black people.” He also referred to Black folks as a hate group and recommended avoiding neighborhoods with significant Black population.
To be clear, Tuohys have made no public statements as nakedly racist as these. I do wonder, though, if they would still have taken Oher in knowing their relationship might deteriorate so publicly.
And therein lies the tragic irony.
See, in American football, the term “the blind side” represents the portion of the field that the quarterback does not see. Big, strong offensive linemen like Michael Oher represent the best way to protect the quarterback from being tackled by defenders in his blind spot. The Tuohys were familiar with football, but they failed to recognize their own cultural and racial blind spots. Whether they insulated themselves from people with dissenting ideas or simply ignored them altogether, Sean and Leigh Anne determined to do what they felt was best without realizing the damage they were doing to someone they claimed to be part of their family.
That is, until he sued them.
In his 2011 book Bloodlines, pastor and theologian John Piper wrote about the intersection of the gospel and America’s history with race. Although his theology on women is problematic in our context, I appreciated this admission:
“No lesson in the pursuit of racial and ethnic diversity and harmony has been more forceful than the lesson that it is easy to get so wounded and so tired that you decide to quit…whatever strategy you try, you will be criticized by somebody. You didn’t say the right thing, or you didn’t say it in the right way, or you should have said it a long time ago, or you shouldn’t say anything but get off your backside and do something, or, or, or. Just when you think you have made your best effort to do something healing, someone will point out the flaw in it. And when you try to talk about doing better, there are few things more maddening than to be told, ‘You just don’t get it.’ Oh, how our back gets up, and we feel the power of self-pity rising in our hearts and want to say, ‘Okay, I’ve tried. I’ve done my best. See you later.’
And there ends our foray into racial harmony.”
My plea is the same as Piper’s: Don’t give up doing what is right because you risk being criticized. Rather, as Proverbs 27:17 suggests, let us be sharpened by the critiques we receive along the way, especially from people in communities outside our immediate circle.
Better yet, invite some of those people into your inner circle, and let them inform your discernment process. If Michael Lewis or Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy had more knowledgeable, professional Black adults in their inner circle as they made their initial connection to Michael Oher, one of them might have intervened. They might have rightly suggested that Oher deserved a greater share than what he was given or that the Tuohys submit script notes asking for a more nuanced portrayal.
As it was, Oher was left to use legal means to try to recoup what he felt he was owed. This is probably why it took so long for him to take action; as a young man immersed in a burgeoning NFL career, he had neither the time, maturity, or funds to order an exhaustive legal review. By initiating this suit, Oher wielded the same weapon—the law—that was used against him at a time he was unable to fight back.
Where idealists may refer to this process as Oher finding his voice—especially since it coincides with the release of his own book—cynics might simply call it revenge. Either way, we all would be wise to avoid such prolonged rancorous disputes, especially among family members. Because as Dr. King also told us, in a quote borrowed from Mahatma Gandhi:
“An eye for an eye leaves everyone blind.”