The other Blind Sides: The Michael Oher story may have been amazing, but was it unique?

The other Blind Sides: The Michael Oher story may have been amazing, but was it unique?

The other Blind Sides: The Michael Oher story may have been amazing, but was it unique?

The stadium scene.
Oct. 14 2010 10:20 AM

The Other Blind Sides

The Michael Oher story may have been amazing, but was it unique?

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Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate’s executive editor.

A destitute black teenager moves in with a rich white family, takes up football, boosts his grades, and becomes a star NFL offensive lineman. There's a reason The Blind Side was a best-selling book and a monster box-office hit—the tale of Michael Oher and the Tuohy family sounds like it was drummed up in a Hollywood story meeting. The remarkable thing about The Blind Side, though, isn't that it's based on a true story. It's that the real Michael Oher is not unique.

In 2009, a few years after Oher left his adoptive home in Memphis, the local paper profiled another of the city's top football prospects. The 315-pound O.C. Brown, the story explained, had a chance to earn a college scholarship but was struggling in school. The solution: The African-American football star left his grandmother's place and moved into the 7,000-square-foot home of one of his white football coaches. The plan worked—Brown is now an offensive lineman at the University of Southern Mississippi, and he's the subject of an upcoming documentary.

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Was O.C. Brown the beneficiary of copycat altruism, a white family's well-meaning attempt to reenact a Hollywood fairytale? Not at all. Young, African-American athletes have been at the center of Blind Side-esque stories since long before Sandra Bullock made Leigh Anne Tuohy famous. To wit: When Oher headed off to Ole Miss, he teamed up with Patrick Willis, a Tennessee native whose life had striking parallels to his own. Willis, now an All-Pro linebacker for the San Francisco 49ers, left home at 16 after watching his father physically abuse his younger sister. The black football star found a stable home with his white basketball coach, and the coach and his wife eventually became his legal guardians.

Michael Lewis, the author of The Blind Side, says he learned very quickly that Oher was no gridiron rara avis. As he was researching the book, Lewis related Oher's astonishing life story to then Tennessee Titans defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz. The coach's response: "We've got a guy like that." That guy was Todd Williams, who was left homeless and without a family as a teenager after the death of his grandmother. Williams overcame his dark adolescence—and made it to the NFL—with help from his coaches, his church, and a mother-son relationship with a white property manager at the Bradenton, Fla., apartment complex where he eventually found a home.

In hindsight, Lewis says, perhaps it wasn't amazing journalistic acumen that led him to the story of The Blind Side. "Maybe I stumbled onto it because it happens so often," he says.

Lewis is right: Once you start looking for these stories, you find them all over the country, at all levels of the sports world. Along with Oher and Willis, a 2009 Sports Illustrated story identified Keith Bulluck, Marcus Dixon, and Jeremy Maclin as three more NFL "players who owe their pro careers in part to white families who provided them havens from adverse circumstances." The Savannah Morning News reports that when University of Georgia defensive endDemarcus Dobbs moved in with a white family, his adoptive 9-year-old sister wrote the following poem in his honor: "He is my brother, but not of my mother / He is #58 and he is great / He gives the best hugs, and he doesn't do drugs." Similar stories proliferate across America's sports pages and Metro sections. (There's even a thriving Gulf Coast sub-genre of black athletes who moved in with white coaches and teachers after Hurricane Katrina.)

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And it's not just a football thing. Shawn Vanzant, a reserve on Butler's 2010 Final Four basketball team, lived for a time with the white family of a fellow high school hoops player. Dennis Rodman, of all people, lived with a white family as a college student in Oklahoma. In a 1988 Sports Illustrated article, the matriarch of Rodman's surrogate family talked about her attempts to sell the story to Hollywood. "People are telling me it's a TV movie," Pat Rich said, "but I see Academy Award winner written all over this." (While The Blind Side netted an Oscar for Sandra Bullock, Rodman's fish-out-of-water tale did in fact go straight to the small screen.)

That's just a small sample—interviews, word of mouth, and Web searches have led me to more than two dozen contemporary African-American athletes who've been adopted or sheltered by white families.   The stories in this genre that have been written since The Blind Side's big splash inevitably measure their heroes against Michael Oher. Not all of the subjects see the similarity. "The movie is nowhere near who I am," former University of Arkansas wide receiver London Crawford told the Mobile Press-Register earlier this year. While Oher was essentially abandoned by his biological family, Crawford maintained ties with his grandmother even after taking up with the family of his white high school English teacher. "I wasn't on the street. I had a home," Crawford explained.

Still, whether we're talking about London Crawford or Michael Oher, boys in high school or men in the pros, all of these narratives hit the same uplifting marks: Black athlete meets white family, flourishes on account of the added support, and everyone lives happily ever after.

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Why do white families take in black athletes? Consider the case of Ross Chouest and Clarence Moore. The Louisiana natives, the former white and the latter black, became summer basketball teammates as middle-schoolers in the mid-1990s. Ross' father Gary, the owner of a private offshore oil firm, is one of the state's richest men. Moore's family, by contrast, was struggling to hold it together, with Clarence's mother in very poor health and his father legally blind. Given those wildly disparate circumstances, the Moores and the Chouests decided it would be best for Clarence to move in with his teammate.

As a 1999 Cox News Service story relates, Clarence "swapped his Kmart clothes for Hilfiger and Polo" and "focus[ed] on jump shots and schoolbooks" rather than his chaotic home life. After they started bunking together, Clarence and Ross teamed up to win a state basketball title. The best buddies-turned-brothers then joined up at Georgia Tech, where Clarence was a key member of the Yellow Jackets' 2004 Final Four team.

The instigator in this instance—and, really, the instigator of every Blind Side story—was a gap between deprivation and comfort, bridged by team sports. For the Chouests, it was no hardship to bring their son's good friend into their home. For Moore, moving into a mansion on the bayou provided stability and a chance to get to college—essentially, the pathway to a better, easier adulthood. "Everybody gets an opportunity in life," Moore told the Cox News Service. "This was mine."

Without sports, the poor African-American kid would have never met the rich white family. More than almost anything else in American life, athletics programs serve as engines for racial and socioeconomic integration. Black kids, white kids, Latino kids, Asian kids, rich kids, and poor kids all play on the same teams. The players become friends, and their parents and coaches expand their usual social circles. "We are isolated from blacks down here, which is not good," Gary Chouest explained in 1999. "I saw [Clarence moving in] as a possible positive influence. It was good for everybody concerned."

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In these Blind Side stories, connections from Pee Wee football and AAU hoops are a recurrent theme. The Philadelphia Eagles' Jeremy Maclin, for one, escaped his stark upbringing by moving in with his white youth football coach. The other common thread here is talent. Young athletes like Maclin and Moore have gifts that are both tangible and fragile. Someone who runs fast and jumps high has an opportunity for social mobility, so long as he avoids off-field obstacles: trouble at home, trouble at school, trouble with the law. For a Blind Side benefactor, the idea that a gifted person needs you—that it's up to you to help him get a college scholarship, or even make it to the pros—is both compelling and gratifying.

But the shuffling of talented athletes between families and schools isn't always seen as altruistic behavior. The NCAA investigated the Tuohys' relationship with Oher, looking into whether the Ole Miss alums took in the football star so they could steer him to their alma mater. (The NCAA ultimately deemed Oher eligible to play for the Rebels.) Gary Chouest, too, was dogged by claims that he became Moore's legal guardian as a ploy to win basketball games. Moore shooed away that allegation in a May 2010 New Orleans Times-Picayune story about Chouest's bid to purchase the NBA's New Orleans Hornets. "Any guy who's willing to help a young man like myself is just a great person," Moore, now the head basketball coach at Kentucky State University, told the Times-Picayune. "There was no ulterior motive. He saw an opportunity to help a young kid out."

If you're suspicious of the intent behind these athlete adoptions, Lamar Odom's story might add to your doubts. The Los Angeles Lakers star, who attended three high schools, ended his itinerant prep career in Connecticut, where he lived with his coach Jerry DeGregorio. After a short, controversial stint at UNLV— Odom took money from a booster—the much-coveted hoops star hooked up with DeGregorio again at the University of Rhode Island. Odom stayed at URI for one more scandalous season—this time, there were allegations of grade-changing—before leaving for the NBA.

The Odom-DeGregorio relationship reads like a marriage of convenience between a well-traveled ballplayer and a talent-hungry coach. The real story isn't that simple, though. DeGregorio acted as a surrogate parent for Odom, whose mother passed away when he was 12 and whose father had a long-time heroin addiction. He is the godfather to Odom's children and was the best man at his wedding. When Odom got married, the Providence Journal reports, the white coach and the black basketball player "[h]ugged as father and son."

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If you're ever searching for an oasis of online goodwill, find a Blind Side story on a newspaper Web site and scroll down to the comments section. The love, you'll find, spills off the screen: "Great human interest story" … "This is the Memphis that I believe in" … "this just made my day" … "What a story of inspiration and hope" … "Great story, good people" … "They need to have a warning with stories like this. I hate to cry in public."

The Blind Side's $300 million box-office take is, of course, the biggest testament to the genre's allure. According to Michael Oher's adoptive father Sean Tuohy, the movie's popularity came down to one thing: Millions of Americans "saw themselves on the screen."

I think Tuohy is halfway there. Audiences loved The Blind Side because they saw the best version of themselves: If I had more time, or more money, or a different job, then I would adopt Michael Oher. But not everyone came away from The Blind Side with a warm and fuzzy feeling. The "movie peddles the most insidious kind of racism," the Village Voice's Melissa Anderson argued, "one in which whiteys are virtuous saviors, coming to the rescue of African-Americans who become superfluous in narratives that are supposed to be about them."

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Whether you believe the movie peddles a racist message, it's almost certainly true that Oher wouldn't have received as much attention if his adoptive parents were black. The cross-racial adoptions seen in The Blind Side and elsewhere are just a subset of a larger phenomenon. Given the crisis of broken homes in the African-American community—according to 2008 numbers from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, 65 percent of black children live with single parents—it's not surprising that a large number of disadvantaged athletes would get support from nonrelatives. As a fifth grader, LeBron James spent a year apart from his single mom, living with the family of his black youth football coach. Amare Stoudemire and Allen Iversonboth lived with their African-American coaches as high schoolers. But when you read about Iverson, for example, his living situation is a mere biographical footnote—a minor detail of his hardscrabble upbringing rather than fodder for a Hollywood script.

Race is central to The Blind Side, with the movie focusing to a large extent on the peculiarity of a black man's presence in a white household. "Who'd have thought we'd have a black son before we knew a Democrat?" the Sean Tuohy character asks in one moment of befuddlement. This incredulity wasn't just a hammy act for the silver screen. In a public speaking gig, the real-life Collins Tuohy describes her friends' shock upon learning that the "big black guy" in the photos in her dorm room was really, truly her brother.

As The Blind Side insinuates, it is unusual for a black kid to live in a white home. While there are no recent, comprehensive statistics on trans-racial adoption, the 1987 National Health Interview Survey (PDF) found that 1 percent of American adoptions featured a white mother and a black child. (Sandra Bullock, who adopted an African-American child this year, falls into that category.)

The precise frequency of interracial adoptions isn't relevant to the film's storyline. What's important is that the arrangement is abnormal enough to provoke an adverse reaction in Memphis high society. One of The Blind Side's most cathartic scenes comes when Leigh Anne Tuohy tells off a well-to-do friend who questions the wisdom of having "a large black boy sleeping under the same roof" as her teenage daughter. The onscreen dismissal of this overt, hysterical racism serves as both a key dramatic moment and a subtle cue to moviegoers that they shouldn't feel guilty about gawking at this unusual family arrangement. It's OK to be transfixed by a black guy in a house full of white folks, the movie is saying. It doesn't mean you're a bigot.

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If we're so charmed and fascinated by these Blind Side stories—and if newspaper editors are so taken with assigning them—then why has no one noticed how common they are? Aside from that brief note in Sports Illustrated acknowledging that three other NFL players have a similar background as Michael Oher, I haven't found a press account that aggregates the many cases of cross-racial athletic adoption.

Perhaps the answer has to do with journalistic motivation. Human-interest stories either try to convince us that their subjects are unique or that they’re exemplars of some growing trend. With regard to marketing, it's not in a writer's interest to argue that his story falls somewhere in the middle—a kind of uncommon phenomenon that's not altogether rare.

There's also a natural tendency to think that if something seems improbable, it must be exceptional. Earlier this year, Jon Mooallem wrote an article for Slate about the proliferation of news accounts about wallets found after decades and, incredibly, returned to their rightful owners. None of these stories make the connection that wallets are being found and returned everywhere—that "there are altruistic little miracles happening around us all the time."

In the case of The Blind Side, it's also possible that Michael Oher simply casts a giant shadow. Perhaps every other athlete with a similar backstory, no matter how compelling, gets blotted from memory by Oher's transfixing life. Indeed, the pure tonnage of Blind Side stories does little to diminish one's wonderment over the homeless kid turned NFL star.

Michael Lewis says he wasn't attracted to the offensive lineman because he was a football oddity. Rather, he wanted to explore the Pygmalion aspect of the Oher-Tuohy relationship—that his adopted family was "not just giving him a home," but "trying to assimilate [him] into the lives of rich, white Evangelical Christians." Sean Tuohy, too, is not attached to the idea that his adopted son is an exceptional figure. Tuohy sees Michael Oher as one among many. "There are so many kids who fall through the cracks who have so much potential in this world," Tuohy told me—kids just like Oher who come from broken homes and don't get saved. "That's the only reason why I'm talking to you, to make sure people know there's a problem."

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