We so badly wanted to believe it. During a time when so many of our football players are running the streets creating chaos, we so badly wanted to believe in the one who jumped from a balcony to save a life.
This was not a football player who assaulted a barfly or drove drunk into a ditch. Josh Shaw wasn't using his athletic skills for something bad, but something pure, the rescue of a child, his 7-year-old nephew who was drowning in an apartment pool, and the mere thought of it gave us goose bumps.
We so wanted to believe that during a Saturday night family function, Shaw saw the boy in peril and leapt from the second floor of a home, injuring his ankles as he landed on the concrete pool deck below. We marveled in imagining him crawling into the water and swimming the child to safety. We thrillingly pictured what happened next, when, "Despite the intense pain in his legs, he was able to grab the ladder and lift himself out of the pool with his upper body."
That quote was from USC, which tweeted and posted the story on its website Monday afternoon. The story was based on an interview with the star cornerback after he reported to campus Sunday with two severely sprained ankles. What a tale! What a guy! The story was soon picked up by media outlets nationwide, including this one, and by golly, we finally had a true hero on our hands, and breathless adjectives tumbled over themselves in recounting his glory.
Of course, USC officials never needed to write the story, or even announce the circumstances of Shaw's injury. They could have treated him like most colleges treat players who suffer odd injuries. They could have listened to his incredible explanation, told him to keep quiet about it because of privacy laws, then announced that he was hurt in a home accident and that there would be no further discussion on the matter.
But the athletic department so badly wanted to believe it, they couldn't wait to shout about it, even before properly checking it, and while that's always bad business, journalism isn't their business. They're not reporters, they're college administrators whose football program was finally shaking free of NCAA probation, shaking loose of Lane Kiffin, and welcoming Steve Sarkisian. It was the perfect time for this perfect story, and they weren't going to let a few nagging doubts stop them from telling it, and they weren't the only ones.
We so badly wanted to believe it, we bought the story literally sight unseen. It ran everywhere without anyone talking to Shaw or any eyewitnesses. Some of the most hardened of editors simply accepted the story from USC as if they were being handed news of a statistic or record. No questions asked. It was as if, at the end of a summer dominated by the wretched stories of Donald Sterling and Dodgers television, this was finally good news, and can't we finally print some good news?
Even some of us who didn't believe it wanted to believe it. When the story broke, I was struck by its improbability, and expressed serious doubts to some co-workers before finally shrugging and making arrangements to interview the kid.
"I don't want to be a cynical old man," I told Sarkisian on Tuesday when I explained this conflict during an interview.
"Me neither," said Sarkisian.
Now, of course, we both look like gullible old fools, along with the rest of USC and the media after the Trojans announced Wednesday that Shaw admitted the story wasn't true. It was delivered in a news release seething with anger and embarrassment, filled with words like "lied," and "complete fabrication."
But, so far anyway, those weren't the worst of Josh Shaw's sins. What he did, more than anything, was steal another tiny bit of our belief. In apparently trying to cover up for a fall in a downtown Los Angeles apartment complex, Shaw took advantage of two things most sports folks still possess, somewhere down deep: faith in greatness and hope in heroes.
You would have thought everyone would have learned this lesson a couple of years ago after wrongly celebrating the fake dead girlfriend of Notre Dame's Manti Te'o, but no. We'll probably never learn. There is a reason the sports world is filled with phrases like "Hope springs eternal" and "Wait till next year." This sort of blind passion is not only sport's blessing, but its curse, and shame on Josh Shaw for trying to run a scam behind it.
USC screwed up. If its athletic department wants to break stories like journalists, then it needs to act like journalists and fully check them out. The local sports media, including the Los Angeles Times, also screwed up. We also didn't act like journalists and, goodness, what's our excuse?
As for Shaw, he has been suspended indefinitely, although he can't play anyway. He has publicly apologized, and has been considered a good kid, so he'll probably come back before the end of the season. At that point, quite amazingly but understandably, Trojans fans will be cheering for him to make a big redeeming play and, if he does, the media will happily chronicle it.
It's sports, and we just can't help ourselves.