A story better left untold -- by everyone

Josh Shaw's false tale of his weekend injuries will keep him from coming back to the USC football team for the indefinite future. But it didn't have to go down ths way.

This wasn't the way we wanted it to go.

Although this almost certainly was the way it was going to go.

The hope here was that Josh Shaw's "saving his nonswimming seven-year-old-nephew-and-spraining-his-ankles" story would not be a "complete fabrication," as he admitted to USC officials Wednesday afternoon after four days of sticking with the lie.

And now he's indefinitely suspended adding insult to injury as he rehabs for what, we're not sure. Will he ever be back in a USC uniform? We can't say. Has this been a most unseemly and uncaptainlike episode for Josh? Absolutely.

Should it define his Trojan career, as a student, athlete or teammate? Absolutely not. But it's a major part of it now.

The hope was that there would be a nugget of truth, that somewhere, somehow, Shaw had performed a rescue even if it wasn't the actual cause of his injuries last weekend. And that he'd chosen to conflate the stories because of the embarrassment that the real story would have generated for himself and maybe innocent people who didn't deserve it. Which probably is still true.

None of that matters now. A young man all of us -- not to mention his teammates to a man we've talked to -- had nothing but the highest praise for. He'd done it all right, from coming home from Florida to take over the family landscaping business when his grandfather got sick to his stirring Athletes Graduation speech. He was the guy who called the players-only meetings when they were needed. He will be missed.

He was somebody you wanted on your side at practices and games, the way he'd stand up for and in front of his teammates, calling them out or leading them along when needed. Now most of that seems very, very far in the distant past even if his naming as a team captain came only earlier Saturday.

And then came his fall -- literally. We'll probably find out how it happened. Or what happened, at least. Not that short of a crime being committed, that's all that important here. Josh did a really dumb thing. The kind of thing college students do. Which is why they're in college, to learn how not to do them.

Or at least not to make them worse. Which is what seems to have happened here. Whatever happened Saturday night, Josh made it infinitely worse with his made-up story. But that's where you wish USC had helped him. If there was any hint of a question about the story, and we understand there was, it should have never seen the light of day.

Which is where the line between producing news and producing PR releases seems to get muddled in this world of instantaneous social media. Universities, even ones with the Annenberg School, aren't in the business of writing real news -- or deciding what it is.

And that becomes important here because you have to wonder when the idea of putting out the heroic Josh Shaw story came up Monday, did anyone ask the "What if . . . ?" questions. We say "questions" because that's what an experienced newsperson would do.

What if the story isn't true?" would have been the first question. The original story had just two quotes -- one from Josh, one from Steve Sarkisian. But what if the heroic story was true, wouldn't the whole expanding universe of media outlets want to talk to Josh, his family, his nephew, whoever was around.

If USC wasn't able to get them in the first story, and in effect insulating it to some extent from the possibility of a fabrication, shouldn't that have been a warning that maybe the story wasn't ready to be a story and didn't need to go out to the whole world Monday?

If it was a good story Monday, wouldn't it have been just as good, or better, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday or even next week?

It didn't have to roll out right away. Holding it would have given Josh time to think about it. Did Josh even realize this story was going out there? That the whole world would hear his "complete fabrication" and come running for more details? That it would dominate the college football world for a full day -- and many more? That everyone would want to talk to all his family involved? There might be a People magazine cover on it. Did anyone tell Josh that? Did anyone realize that?

And if not, should that be a signal that maybe the production of news stories might not be the way for athletic departments to go, at least not for hard news, major stories that can jump the rails into the mainstream nonsports media. So much so that the Today Show was setting up its satellite truck at midnight on campus for a live open at 4 a.m. Pacific time for a 7 a.m. East Coast broadcast.

What if it's not true?

Just asking that question, even after getting the wrong answer from Josh, might have been a career-saver here. And a lesson learned for Josh although not as it has been here, in the absolutely worst way possible as we see what that looks like.

And it would have done so, quietly, without pulling everyone's focus from football and Fresno State, even if just a bit and for just a few days.

The good news is it's over, except for Josh. We can only hope it's not over -- we're talking about football, for him. But it's made it infinitely harder.

And it's harder for USC, as well. Without Josh, this becomes a younger team with fewer leaders. We wish he could have come back quietly, if there's no crime involved, and didn't feel the need to hire a prominent criminal attorney like Donald Etra and been able to confess to the team and coaches and work his way back without our ever knowing.

And we're in the news business. But sometimes you really don't need to know.

You can follow me on Twitter at @dweber3440 or email me at weber@uscfootball.com.

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