The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

‘The Blind Side’ and Business Reality

Posted on | August 26, 2023 | Comments Off on ‘The Blind Side’ and Business Reality

Former NFL tackle Michael Oher filed a lawsuit against the Tuohy family, who helped him become a football standout, a story made famous in the 2009 film The Blind Side, for which Sandra Bullock won an Academy Award. Oher recently filed a lawsuit claiming that the Tuohys cheated him out of his rightful share of the proceeds of that film, a claim which the producers of the film have now rebutted — or, at least, they’ve tried to clarify the facts, contrary to misinformation promoted by the media.

According to the producers, the entire payment to the Tuohy family and Oher was less than $800,000. That’s all they made from this Academy Award-winning movie about their lives, and why? Because the movie is, in turn, based upon a book of the same title by Michael Lewis. So the producers paid Lewis for the rights to his book, and also contracted with Oher and the Lewis family, for what seems rather a small sum, all things considered. Should Oher have gotten more money for the movie rights? Perhaps, but it’s not as if the Tuohy family made a fortune off it:

The producers explained how the rights to Lewis’ book and associated rights contracts were negotiated by “Twentieth Century Fox and inherited by Alcon when the film was put in turnaround.” The film would go on to be released by Warner Bros. They also pointed out that in 2006, contracts and “the limitations of what college athletes were able to do and maintain eligibility, were very different than they are today.”
“The deal that was made by Fox for the Tuohys and Michael Oher’s life rights was consistent with the marketplace at that time for the rights of relatively unknown individuals. Therefore, it did not include significant payouts in the event of the film’s success,” they said.
“As a result, the notion that the Tuohys were paid millions of dollars by Alcon to the detriment of Michael Oher is false,” they added, before sharing how much Alcon paid the talent agency that represented the Tuohys and Oher.

The producers explain that, prior to the movie’s release, nobody thought it would be the smash hit it subsequently became, which in turn explains why it “was put in turnaround” — sold from one studio (Fox) to another (Warner Brothers) during the development process.

What’s most interesting to me in all this is that the original book The Blind Side wasn’t really about Michael Oher. His personal story — plucked out of poverty in Memphis to become a football star for suburban Briarcrest Christian School — was merely the narrative vehicle by which author Michael Lewis told the story of how changes in the game of football had impacted the value of offensive tackles:

The book is an examination of how offensive football strategy has evolved over the past three decades in large part due to linebacker Lawrence Taylor’s arrival in the 1980s and how this evolution has placed an increased importance on the role of the offensive left tackle. Most quarterbacks are right-handed and in order to throw, they stand with their left shoulder facing down field. Thus, they turn their backs to linebackers and other defenders pass rushing from the left side, creating a vulnerable “blind side” that the left tackle must protect. Taylor’s speed and power changed the role of outside linebacker to become a more attacking, aggressive position. This in turn caused teams to emphasize larger and more agile left tackles.

In other words, because extraordinary pass rushers like Lawrence Taylor had made it more difficult for offensive linemen to protect quarterbacks on passing plays, this created an incentive to find linemen — and particularly the left “blind side” tackle — with the rare combination of size and speed necessary to deal with the improvements on defense. The story Lewis was telling about football in the book The Blind Side was similar to what he’d done with baseball in his 2003 book Moneyball.

Lewis has a background in economics, and worked for Salomon Brothers before becoming an author. His specialty is as a storyteller explaining how economic incentives function — where there is an opportunity to make big money, people have a strong motive find a way to gain a competitive advantage. The real human lives affected by this, for better or worse, are at the heart of the storytelling that Lewis does with such success. As for Michael Oher, after playing college ball for Ole Miss, he was picked in the first round of the 2009 NFL draft by the Baltimore Ravens, and signed a five-year contract reportedly worth $13.5 million. Three seasons later the Ravens won Super Bowl XLVII, and a year after that, Oher became a free agent, signing a four-year contract with the Tennessee Titans reportedly worth $20 million, but he lasted only one season in Tennessee before being released, and then was signed by the Carolina Panthers in 2015 on a reported $7 million two-year contract. His NFL career ended two years later, when Oher was 31.

It is impossible to know exactly how much Oher actually earned during his eight seasons in the NFL. The reported value of a contract usually includes incentives which a player may or may not make. However, it’s a safe guess that Oher’s total career earnings were somewhere above $20 million, which is a heckuva lot more than the Tuohy’s earned during the same timespan, so why is he suing them now? It makes no sense.

We can only speculate on Michael Oher’s motives in turning against the Tuohy family like this. If I had to guess, I’d imagine Oher’s experiencing some financial difficulty in his post-NFL life, and listened to some of his “friends” telling him he had been unfairly exploited. The explanation from the film producer makes that seem unlikely, and this sad chapter in Oher’s life is an unfortunate turn in what had been an inspiring story.



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