Blindsided: Michael Oher’s Petition to End His Conservatorship Raises Concerns of Conservatorship Abuse
By: Kylee Harvey* Posted: 09/25/2023
Former NFL lineman Michael Oher’s rise from a troubled, poverty-stricken background to collegiate and professional football stardom was illustrated in the award-winning 2009 film “The Blind Side.” The inspirational story details how Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy took Oher into their home as a high school student, later adopted him, and helped kick-start his football career. However, Oher’s petition to a Shelby County, Tennessee probate court in early August alleges that he was never adopted at all, and instead was tricked into signing a document making the Tuohy’s his conservators. Oher’s petition has since raised conflicting opinions regarding the ethics of conservatorship agreements and the ways in which they may be abused.
The Truth Behind Michael Oher’s Conservatorship
A conservatorship involves the removal of decision-making powers from an individual with a disability, either mental, emotional, or physical, which inhibits their ability to make important financial or health-related decisions for themselves and places such responsibility in the hands of a conservator. Most often, conservatorships are arranged to protect individuals from making harmful decisions due to such disabilities. Oher’s petition, however, points out that he has no known physical or psychological disabilities and alleges his conservatorship was instead established as a means to give the Tuohys the legal authority to not only make business deals in his name, but also to make millions of dollars from the Oscar-winning film of his life story.
In discovering the truth about the conservatorship, Oher argues that the Tuohy family breached their fiduciary duty as his conservators by using his name and likeness for their financial gain, and that they should be sanctioned as a result. Further, Oher entered into the conservatorship, allegedly unbeknownst to him, which gave the Tuohy family complete authority over Oher’s financial, educational, and medical decisions and barring him from entering into any contracts without their approval. Although judges are obligated to prioritize the individual's well-being in a conservatorship and to promote representation in the least restrictive manner possible, Oher’s conservatorship stripped him of most of his legal rights.
The Tuohy family claim to have been instructed by their lawyers to enter into the conservatorship rather than pursue adoption because Oher was already eighteen years old. Additionally, NCAA rules would have prohibited the Tuohys from supporting Oher while he was playing football at the University of Mississippi, their alma mater. However, pursuing a conservatorship was not entirely necessary, considering NCAA rules only prohibit university “boosters” from offering recruits housing and financial support. In this scenario, adopting Oher would have sufficed because it would have formalized the relationship between Oher and the Tuohy family, while also giving him the ability to manage his own financial affairs.
The Danger of Conservatorships
Amidst Oher’s petition to end his conservatorship with the Tuohy family, many experts have offered opinions as to the ethical dilemma surrounding conservatorship agreements and the ways in which such agreements may be abused. In many cases, conservatorship abuse occurs when the individual allegedly needing a conservator does not fully understand the extent of the agreement they are entering. Conservators may abuse their power of decision-making through physical, sexual, and psychological abuse, as well as neglect and financial exploitation.
Legal experts have maintained that power of attorneys offer a much less restrictive means of supporting individuals who may require assistance in their decision-making. According to the American Bar Association, “[a] power of attorney gives one or more persons the power to act on your behalf as your agent.” Many of these experts also urge judges to scrutinize cases further when deciding whether an individual needs a conservator and to advocate for additional legal advice to individuals contemplating a conservatorship. Additionally, state laws vary as to whether they automatically appoint an attorney to an individual in need of a conservator, whether to only appoint an attorney at the request of the individual, or whether to appoint an attorney at all. Ultimately, the significance of conservatorships and the rights they require individuals to surrender warrant a complete understanding of the matter in its entirety.
Preventing Conservatorship Abuse
In order to protect individuals from conservatorship abuse, the American judicial system must create uniform conservatorship laws across all states. At the national level, the Uniform Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Other Protective Arrangements Act (“the Act”) promotes the consideration of an individual’s preferences and values in their conservatorship agreement, while also requiring courts to seek less restrictive methods before resorting to a conservatorship. The Act serves to ensure the individual involved in the conservatorship is properly guided by their conservator and uniformly monitored by the court system, and it also seeks to allow the individual to maintain their rights through the individuality of their personal plans.
Because conservatorship laws differ by state, the obligations and duties of conservators also differ, ultimately contributing to the abuse of power of their position. The lack of uniformity in procedure in terms of conservatorships across states similarly influences the tendency for conservators to abuse their position. In order to reduce the likelihood of conservators abusing their positions of authority over individuals involved in conservatorships, there must be uniformity across all states in terms of the role of conservators, observation by the court system, and consideration of the needs of the individual under the conservatorship.
*Staff Writer, Jeffrey S. Moorad Sports Law Journal, J.D. Candidate, May 2025, Villanova University Charles Widger School of Law.
 See Michael A. Fletcher, ‘Blind Side’ Subject Oher Alleges Tuohys Made Millions Off Lie, ESPN, (Aug. 14, 2023, 12:00 PM), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/38190720/blind-side-subject-michael-oher-alleges-adoption-was-lie-family-took-all-film-proceeds (introducing Oher’s petition to Tennessee court “with allegations that a central element of the story was a lie concocted by the family to enrich itself at his expense.”).
 See id. (contrasting heartwarming story with Oher’s disappointment in film’s portrayal of him as unintelligent). Oher noted how the film’s storyline negatively impacted his NFL career and painted an inaccurate picture of his life. See id. (specifying how “NFL decision-makers” made false assumptions about Oher’s intellectual and leadership abilities based on movie).
 See id. (noting Oher’s legal filing which described his disappointment in discovering that conservatorship did not make him legal member of Tuohy family, despite Oher’s reliance on this notion when he agreed to enter into conservatorship).
 See Esther Sun, What is a Conservatorship? The System at the Heart of Michael Oher’s Case Explained, Today (Aug. 17, 2023, 3:33 PM), https://www.today.com/popculture/news/conservatorship-michael-oher-tuohy-rcna100264 (explaining how decision for court to grant conservatorships should require higher burden of proof to ensure individuals entering into conservatorship will truly benefit from giving up their rights to self-determination).
 See Tenn. Code Ann § 34-1-101(4)(A) (West 2010) (defining “conservator” as someone appointed by court to take on responsibility of decision-making for persons deemed unfit to do so for themselves).
 See Sun, supra note 4 (offering explanation of conservatorships as means to protect individuals with mental or emotional disabilities which prevent them from making informed decisions).
 See Fletcher, supra note 1 (explaining Oher’s “petition further alleges 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.’”).
 See Molly Hensley-Clancy & Ben Strauss, The ‘Strange’ Conservatorship at the Center of the ‘Blind Side’ Dispute, Wash. Post (Aug. 25, 2023, 10:53 AM), https://www.washingtonpost.com/sports/2023/08/25/blind-side-controversy/ (describing how Oher’s discovery of conservatorship led him to build legal case against Tuohy family).
 See Claudia Rosenbaum, Was Michael Oher Blind to His Blind Side Conservatorship?, Vulture (Sept. 15, 2023), https://www.vulture.com/article/blind-side-michael-oher-conservatorship-lawsuit-explained.html#:~:text=He%20claims%20that%20the%20conservatorship,place%20for%20almost%2020%20years (explaining that because Oher could not sign contracts or make medical and education decisions without Tuohy’s approval, he lost millions of dollars).
 See Hensley-Clancy, supra note 8 (adding that “while the Tuohys’ petition asked for the arrangement to continue ‘at least until he reaches the age of 25 or until terminated by order of this court prior to that time,’ the judge’s order imposed it indefinitely.”).
 See id. (describing unusual choice to pursue conservatorship, considering Oher had no known disabilities). The Tuohy’s attorney refused to explain why they chose a conservatorship over adoption, and local Tennessee attorneys claimed to have “never seen a [conservatorship] document like the petition the Tuohys filed … ,” specifically pointing to the agreement’s request that Oher be recognized as a “‘resident member of [the Tuohys] household,’” and the fact that the petition was signed by an attorney outside of Tennessee. See id. (noting suspicions raised by Tennessee attorneys specializing in conservatorship agreements).
 See Hensley-Clancy, supra note 8 (describing Tuohy’s reasoning for entering into conservatorship as stemming from scrutiny by NCAA, which forbids university boosters from forming relationships with and providing compensation to prospective student-athletes as means to ensure their enrollment in university); see also Role of Boosters, NCAA, https://www.ncaa.org/sports/2013/11/27/role-of-boosters.aspx (last visited Sept. 19, 2023) (explaining that while individuals who contribute their time or finances to university’s athletics department are permitted to maintain friendships with prospective and enrolled student-athletes, they may not influence student-athletes to pursue specific universities or provide incentives to do so).
 See Hensley-Clancy, supra note 8 (“The NCAA would have required the Tuohys and the Ohers to show their relationship was ‘not created solely to get the athlete enrolled in a school,’ said Josephine Potuto, the former chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Infractions”); see also Role of Boosters, supra note 12 (defining “boosters” as “‘representatives of the institution’s athletic interests,’” including anyone who has donated to university’s athletic department, participated as member in organization prompting university’s athletics programs, provided employment to enrolled student-athletes, assisted in recruiting process, or provided benefits to enrolled student-athletes or their families). A violation of any of these impermissible activities risks the student-athlete’s eligibility. See id. (noting NCAA booster status applies indefinitely to individuals satisfying NCAA requirements).
 See Hensley-Clancy, supra note 8 (noting unusual circumstances surrounding Tuohy family’s choice to pursue conservatorship over adoption, as option for individuals over age of eighteen, to formalize their relationship with Oher).
 For further discussion of the ethical dilemmas surrounding conservatorships, see infra note 20-28 and accompanying text.
 See Sun, supra note 4 (explaining how Tuohy family allegedly persuaded Oher into signing conservatorship documents when he was eighteen years old by telling him that conservatorships were fairly similar to adoption). The Tuohy’s responded to this allegation by claiming they were instructed to pursue the conservatorship to help Oher obtain a driver’s license, gain college admission, and support his finances. See id. (illustrating how decision to pursue conservatorship cost Oher right to make his own decisions).
 See Conservatorship & Guardianship Abuse Awareness Day, ABA (Jan. 18, 2023), https://www.americanbar.org/groups/law_aging/resources/guardianship_law_practice/guarconserv-abuse-aware-day/ (introducing movie “I Care a Lot,” which depicts instances of abuse in Clark County, Nevada where criminals targeted elderly adults, coerced them into guardianship, neglected them, and drained their finances).
 See Power of Attorney, ABA, https://www.americanbar.org/groups/real_property_trust_estate/resources/estate_planning/power_of_attorney/ (last visited Sept. 19, 2023) (explaining how power of attorney may be limited or general in scope and may also be limited or permanent depending on person’s needs); see generally Sun, supra note 4 (introducing discussions among legal experts concerned about conservatorship abuse).
 See Power of Attorney, supra note 18 (describing how power of attorney allows individuals to choose who will act as their agent and define scope and limits of agent’s authority); see also Sun, supra note 4 (insinuating that through power of attorney, Tuohy family could have continued to enable Oher to obtain driver’s license and manage his income, while still allowing him opportunity to sign contracts independently). Under a conservatorship, however, any decisions made by Oher without the consent of the Tuohy family would ultimately be considered “null and void” in the eyes of the court. See id. (explaining court’s view of individuals requiring conservators as unable to make decisions on their own).
 See Sun, supra note 4 (expanding upon idea that, because individuals who consent to conservatorships often do not recognize extent of rights being forfeited, access to legal advice could potentially serve as preventative measure of conservatorship abuse by offering full disclosure of what conservatorship entails).
 See id. (“Some states, like New York, appoint an attorney for every individual who is allegedly in need of a conservatorship . . . however, [in Tennessee,] where Oher grew up and signed his conservatorship with the Tuohys, the law only requires the court to appoint an attorney at the request of the person allegedly in need of an appointee.”). Assigning an attorney at the request of the individual, however, incorrectly assumes the individual understands the significance of a conservatorship to the extent necessary to seek legal advice. See id. (describing how increased communication and education will contribute to further understanding of conservatorships and improve practice within judicial system).
 See id. (suggesting significance of rights relinquished by those entering into conservatorships are similar to rights relinquished by individuals sentenced to prison, so conservatorships should be taken just as seriously by judicial system).
 See George J. Tzimorangas, "Gimme More" Freedom, Your Honor: How Guardianship and Conservatorship Laws Can Be Reformed Amid Britney Spears' Controversial Conservatorship Coming to an End, 36 Quinnipiac Prob. L. J. 54, 60 (2022) (illustrating that uniform conservatorship laws are important to ensure conservators are properly trained in their responsibilities, to ensure individuals entering into conservatorships retain some of their rights, and to increase collection of data surrounding conservatorships as means to improve system wholistically).
 See id. at 59 (explaining how Act requires conservators to file individual, personalized plans for court’s review, requires courts to implement procedures to ensure consistent monitoring of such plans, and also requires conservator to notify court of any changes made to individual’s plan).
 See id. at 58 (noting only two states have adopted Act since it’s drafting). Regardless, “the most vulnerable in the community will continue to be taken advantage of without a uniform set of guidelines in place across state lines to ensure guardians and conservators are adequately performing their fiduciary duties.” See id. at 59 (emphasizing consequences of lack of uniformity in conservatorship guidelines, despite all states adopting laws designed to protect due process rights).
 See id. at 58 (explaining that “[i]n some states, guardians are only implemented to take care of an individual’s personal affairs, while conservators are put in place to control a person’s estate and finances.”). Other states use the terms “guardian” and “conservator” interchangeably. See id. (noting discrepancies between guardianships and conservatorships among states).
 See id. (illustrating how some states consider guardianship over persons or their property to be unique and require reports to be filed with state court administrative office, while other states do not recognize guardianships as unique).
 See id. at 69-70 (describing how uniform system of establishing and maintaining conservatorships would ensure that individuals involved in conservatorships are being properly assisted by their conservator and reduce likelihood of abuse).