This is not as simple as getting our facts correct.
Of course, if even one reporter had insisted that a story on the team’s website wasn’t enough verification, we wouldn’t be here.
If even one journalist had questioned someone – anyone – beyond the people in the athletic department, or the football office, or the athlete himself, we wouldn’t be here.
But, how often do we doubt the head coach? How often do we contest the word of the athletic director? Or that of the sports information director?
OK, it happens on occasion. And what happens then? Sometimes we see a coach throwing an on-camera tantrum directed at a reporter. Maybe we hear about a sports editor getting a phone call.
Whatever happened to Josh Shaw’s ankles is being called Manti Teo Part II. USC coach Steve Sarkisian is “vetting” it. And, suddenly, neither Shaw nor his family is available for comment.
On the afternoon of Monday, Aug. 25, Jordan Moore – USC’s director of social media – posted a story explaining that defensive back Josh Shaw’s two sprained ankles were the result of a heroic plunge off a balcony to save Shaw’s nephew.
Sarkisian spoke to the media about it. Shaw spoke to the media about it. And the media took them at their words.
Now there is speculation that the story is false and media pundits are questioning how this could possibly happen after the Teo-girlfriend debacle of a year-and-a-half ago, which I wrote about then as a failure of not just the media, but of our culture.
Personally, this story doesn’t surprise me at all – and not because I’m some media skeptic or because I believe that sports writers don’t do their jobs.
I wrote my dissertation about how Sarkisian – with the support, at the time, of the University of Washington’s athletic department – is hell bent to control his message.
At UW, the athletic department hired former AP sports writer Gregg Bell to write feel-good stories about Huskies athletes – particularly football players – for the team’s website. Who was Bell’s top editor? Sarkisian.
Sarkisian went so far as to line-edit stories. He reviewed stories he felt were “too rough” and had Bell massage facts to make them smoother.
Sarkisian was mildly successful at UW based in large part because of his recruiting prowess. Hell, even before he got in to coaching, he was a salesman. His interest is selling the program, not facts.
Sarkisian’s priority should be selling the program over facts, one could argue, but when you’re a micromanager with too much to do, things fall through the cracks.
The truth in this matter fell through the cracks.
Sarkisian and his support staff are “vetting” Shaw’s story, he nonchalantly told the media Tuesday.
A day late, a dollar short.
This isn’t the 1950s, when a superstar athlete could get away with all kinds of malfeasance. This is the digital age, when the public not only sees everything that happens, it also tweets it, puts it on Instagram or Facebook, etc. The vetting is way too late and both Sarkisian’s and USC’s credibility is on the hook.
The media? Yes, they are on the line, too.
Aside from the sheer accuracy of the story being verified, the details of the saving-the-nephew story would have been much richer had someone asked for the account from the boy’s parents.
But the sports media in this age have been conditioned to let the all-knowing coach and the all-controlling athletic department create, shape and disseminate the message.
Because the fans want that message. Fans discredit reporters who report on scandals and uncover unspeakable ills in the college sports arena. Fans eat up the hero narrative, bask in the feel-good story and keep themselves intoxicated on this obsession on the turf.
Don’t buy it?
Ask Manti Teo.