By Greg Johnson
Imagine going to the movie theater and seeing yourself depicted on the big screen.
Then imagine not being thrilled by the portrayal.
That’s what Joyce Thompson, an associate director on the NCAA enforcement staff, went through in November when she saw the Academy Award-winning movie “The Blind Side.”
Thompson admits it was flattering that producers of the film felt it was necessary to include as part of the movie her interview with main character Michael Oher, a homeless African-American youth who finds a loving home with a white family in Memphis.
Oher became an elite offensive line football prospect who signed a National Letter of Intent to attend college at Mississippi, the alma mater of his adoptive parents, Sean and Leigh Ann Tuohy. He eventually became the Baltimore Ravens’ first-round draft pick in 2009.
In real life, Thompson interviewed Oher to make sure there were no NCAA violations in his recruitment. Actress Sharon Morris plays NCAA investigator Jocelyn Granger, but it’s Thompson’s character.
Thompson hopes people come away affected more by Sandra Bullock’s Oscar-winning performance than the license filmmakers took with the interview.
“The way we interview student-athletes or prospects is completely different from how it was portrayed in the movie,” said Thompson, who has worked on the NCAA enforcement staff for eight years. “I didn’t like the fact that the investigator came off as intimidating. I try not to be that way.”
Those who know Thompson around the national office can attest to that. They know her to be more personable and professional.
In the movie, the NCAA investigator is a hard-nosed authoritarian. She tells Bullock’s character that she isn’t allowed to sit in on the interview with her adopted son, and the interview takes place in an office. Thompson said it is against NCAA policy to refuse a parent or legal guardian from attending the interview.
In actuality, Thompson interviewed Oher in the Tuohys’ home with the parents present, along with author Michael Lewis, whose book “The Blind Side: Evolution of the Game” was the inspiration for the movie.
Thompson, who earned her law degree from Valparaiso in 1999, says the description of her interview with Oher is more accurate in the book.
“Let’s just say that I liked the book more than the movie,” said Thompson, who worked for the Indiana attorney general’s office and the Indiana Department of Health before joining the NCAA enforcement staff in 2002.
Before “The Blind Side” was released in theaters, Thompson used her investigative skills to contact Morris to see if she could get a sneak preview of how she would be portrayed. At the time, Morris hadn’t seen a final cut of the film and suggested Thompson call her after she had seen the movie.
“I asked her if she could’ve been a little nicer,” Thompson said. “I told Sharon that if I had acted like that, I would have been jobless. She suggested I could look at it from the perspective of the NCAA investigator being a strong character.”
It is true that Bullock’s character controlled everything in the movie, and the one situation she couldn’t influence was the interview conducted by Morris’ character. Thompson, who earned her undergraduate degree in criminal justice and African-American studies with a minor in English at Indiana in 1995, worries that the film will only reinforce negative stereotypes of how the enforcement staff conducts business.
“We don’t want the public thinking, ‘We knew the enforcement staff was like that,’ ” Thompson said. “That does not represent me or my colleagues.”
Because “The Blind Side” was a box office draw, Thompson has noticed that some of her interview subjects come in with negative preconceptions. Usually, when she’s done with her inquiry, those notions are erased.
“They say they were nervous before the conversation started,” Thompson said. “But when it is over they usually say, ‘That wasn’t bad at all.’ ”
For Thompson, that’s no act.