The Josh Shaw case: Another sign that big-college football must go

The Josh Shaw case: Another sign that big-college football must go
USC cornerback Josh Shaw (26) runs back an interception against Hawaii during a game on Aug. 29, 2013 (Eugene Tanner / Associated Press)
The joke around Southern California long has been that Los Angeles doesn't need an NFL team because it already has a pro franchise -- USC football. The Josh Shaw case is another indication that the joke's on USC.

We reported recently, in connection with Ed O'Bannon's lawsuit over the licensing of his name and image as a former UCLA basketball player, that big-time college football and basketball are basically incompatible with the mission of a university. The Shaw case underscores that these industrial-scale athletic programs and academic programs simply don't mix. The only way to resolve the conflict is for universities to cut their football and basketball programs loose.

You may know already that Shaw is the fifth-year USC cornerback who has been caught in a lie. He explained his two ankle injuries with a story about leaping from a second-story balcony in Palmdale to save his 7-year-old nephew from drowning.

USC's publicity machine, knowing money when it smells it, swung into action, issuing a news-story-like press release about its heroic, courageous 22-year-old football player. National media, including The Times, republished the irresistible yarn.
Then Shaw's name turned up in a police report from an apartment complex where he lives near the USC campus, featuring a woman's screams and a figure supposedly resembling Shaw spotted running across or scaling a balcony. It's all very murky, but Shaw has admitted that he made up the story about saving his nephew. Now he's suspended and the target of nationwide finger-pointing -- about what, no one can even say. 

It should be obvious that this episode would have unfolded very differently if Shaw were either a college student or an athlete, as opposed to that hybrid creature, the NCAA Division I "scholar-athlete."

The university would not have been so quick to trumpet Shaw's heroics as an example of USC athletic valor, and The Times and other media would not have been so quick to swallow the story whole. Shaw probably would not have had to hire an attorney, much less one known for representing Rhianna and Snoop Dogg. And he wouldn't be held up to public obloquy as the perpetrator of a major sports "hoax," like the would-be marathon runner Rosie Ruiz.

The whole thing probably would have been laughed off or treated discreetly as a university disciplinary matter. If the woman's screams and the flight across the balcony involved some sort of criminal activity, which isn't at all clear, it probably would warrant a small item on the police blotter, not top-of-the-page treatment at

The national prominence of USC's football program is the underlying cause of all this mortification. As Daniel Durbin, the university's own expert on sports and media, told my colleague Nathan Fenno, the athletic department's role in disseminating the initial story stemmed in part from its desire to "protect the bottom line."

Remember: that "bottom line" involves an enterprise that has nothing whatsoever to do with academics. The university can't protect that bottom line without undermining everything else it says it wants to achieve for the students it serves. 

The athletic department's rush to put out a story that it could not possibly have checked out -- though it claims, risibly, to have vetted the story with 12 different people -- makes a mockery of USC football Coach Steve Sarkisian's insistence that "honesty and integrity must be at the center of our program." And it doesn't make the rest of the media look much better.

But the real damage is to USC's reputation as a university. Shaw, we're told, is a "fifth-year senior." Possibly he's spending that fifth year at the university to shore up his academic credentials and prepare for an office career. More plausibly, it's to take advantage of his extra year of NCAA eligibility, presumably to shore up his appeal for the pros. That's good for him, one supposes, but how does it reflect USC's commitment to the education of one Josh Shaw? And how does it serve USC's other students?
Is USC an academic institution, or a player factory for the NFL? It can't be both. 
If the NFL needs for its incoming players to have a few years of minor-league training, it should set up a farm system like baseball, instead of having universities do the NFL's job for free. It would be cheaper for most universities in the long run, and certainly cause less embarrassment for them.

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