Prior to a typical brainless scroll though Twitter Monday evening while watching The Simpsons marathon on FXX, I’d never heard the name of USC senior safety Josh Shaw. Admission: I’m not an avid college football fan. The 140-character tease was eye-catching enough to merit 17 seconds of my valuable time: USC Player Jumps Off Balcony, Saves Drowning Nephew.
Great story, right? Something positive. An actual situation where using the word “hero” to describe someone’s exploits doesn’t seem too far-fetched, unnecessary, or hyperbolic.
Then the story popped up on Twitter, again. And again. And again. (Yes, like almost all other sites under the catch-all “sports blog” umbrella, we ran it.)
Normally, the next step in the cycle would either be a) Shaw showing up on Good Morning America or b) never hearing of Shaw again until NFL draft day as the 15-second news cycle turns to it’s next hashtag. In a weird, bizarre upset, we got option C, and few anticipated option C on Monday night.
Yes, Shaw remained in the news Tuesday — but for uniquely odd reasons with the veracity of his heroic rescue called into question. Again, on Twitter, whispers began that something about Shaw’s story was amiss. Trojans coach Steve Sarkisan addressed a question about the story’s validity and it all snowballed from there, perhaps fueled by the start of the college season tantalizingly hovering on the horizon.
First came the joke tweets. Then we got the speculation tweets, as everyone played 140-character Colombo. Then we moved on to vague, foruth-hand accounts. Were the police involved? Was it a domestic situation? Did he jump? Did he hurt himself “shimmying” down the side of a building? Did Shaw actually even have a real-life seven-year-old cousin? (Deep breath) … is this the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend story playing out again? No way … it couldn’t be, could it? (Shaw does indeed have a seven-year-old nephew named Carter. We do know this much.)
Eventually the LAPD held a press conference, but didn’t specifically address Shaw since there wasn’t a police report. The police basically acted like everyone else: maybe something happened, maybe it didn’t, we don’t have any way of confirming or denying it.
Again … all for a 22-year-old college kid who 99.99999999999 percent of the world didn’t know existed until Monday evening.
And yet, that doesn’t matter. The initial headline: “College Football Player Hurts Ankles After Jumping Off Balcony to Save Drowning Nephew” is too good to pass up. When you’re sitting in front of your screen, staring off into the Internet abyss, when you see a headline like that you might click — even if you look at the story for 2.7 seconds. Hey, it’s on the Internet. Somebody wrote it, so it must be true. Cool, I’ll share it with my aunt on Facebook — she likes those type of feel-good stories.
Actually — because I’m a media flak — something did strike me reading the Shaw story for the first time: the source. Everyone attributed the story to a blog post on the Southern Cal official sports website. As a person who came up through newspapers and dealt with SIDs on a regular basis (well, I received their e-mails and faxes) the the typical sports information department breaks news of this caliber as often as a solar eclipse. College sports information departments let you know when Joe Player receives honorable mention Little East conference honors, not a story about a player literally playing Spiderman to save a drowning nephew. (Other blog posts on USCTrojans.com include video updates on former Trojan Lucas Duda’s latest home run for the Mets and a tennis coach earning an honor.)
How was the Los Angeles media not all over this story? If it happened at a family event, wouldn’t there be more witnesses? Who the hell knows other than Shaw himself?
Sitting in front of my computer 2,500 miles away from sunny Southern California, my chances of uncovering the mystery of Josh Shaw on the night of August 23, 2014 are slim. What I can contribute is a little look into the process of how a viral story like this can spread at such a rapid speed. So much of the world of online publishing/blogging is built on credibility. Realistically, all it takes is a few mouse clicks to publish something to the web. Given the amount of rumor and blind speculation floating around, you have to trust the source of the information. You’d think a university’s official athletic site wouldn’t publish blatantly false information — there’s quite a leap between a school’s own site and a unverified message board.
At the same time in 2014 many of the positions in the world of journalism — editors, fact checkers, etc. — have become increasingly rare. If the USC site publishes something, it’s assumed to be accurate and then it spreads across the web, churning through the viral news cycle. Maybe the story sounds a little too good to be true, but it’s coming from a fairly legit source, so run with it — everyone else is doing so.
There’s another theory: USC published the drowning rescue story to cover something else up in relation to Shaw’s ankle injury. In the post-Lennay Kekua world, this seems like quite a bridge for USC to cross. Why, if there’s no police report, would USC create a phony hero story? Whatever actually happened that night, all USC needed to say was Shaw injured his ankles in an off-field incident. Maybe a reporter would follow it up, maybe not. Other than Trojans fans, who would even care? Why build up a phony hero narrative?
Going this route, USC has turned something that — whatever the truth — has nothing to do with football into an unneeded distraction, something the rest of the Pac-12 is certainly enjoying this week. Just a hunch, Sarkisan would rather devote all his focus to the Fresno State game Saturday night, than all the inquiries the Shaw situation has generated. Another hunch: most coaches aren’t too excited when TMZ shows up on their caller IDs.
And for all this, it’s still entirely possible Shaw did save his drowning nephew last Saturday night. His sister backed it up.
A seemingly great story turned from heroic to a complete cluster you-know-what in less than 24 hours: 2014 sports media in a nutshell.