The bizarre case of Josh Shaw’s sprained ankles, a drowning nephew and a baffled USC football team


In this Aug. 29, 2013, photo, Southern California cornerback Josh Shaw (26) runs back an interception for a touchdown against Hawaii during the second quarter of an NCAA college football game in Honolulu. (Eugene Tanner/AP)

This is the story of a star college football athlete, an allegedly drowning child, a pair of sprained ankles — and two divergent narratives.

One cast star University of Southern California cornerback senior Josh Shaw as a hero who sprained both of his ankles leaping from a balcony to save his nephew drowning in a pool below. The other narrative calls into question that story of apparent valor, raising the possibility it was not only made-up — but deployed to obfuscate how Shaw really got hurt.

Either way, no one’s quite sure what to make of the curious case of the sprained ankles. “We’re going to continue to vet [Shaw’s story] and we’re looking at it,” said team coach Steve Sarkisian. On Tuesday, he said he had received “some calls” casting doubt on Shaw’s story. “I will say that Josh had never given us any indication not to believe his story. He’s been a kid of very high character for us, a team leader, elected team captain. I had no reason not to believe him.”

Still, there’s reason to wonder.

The saga opened Monday afternoon with a USC press release entitled “Shaw Suffers Injury While Rescuing Nephew.” The story drew on an interview with Shaw, who said he had been at a “family social function” at his cousin’s apartment in nearby Palmdale during the weekend when near-disaster struck. The clip said Shaw had “looked on” from the second floor balcony when he spotted his nephew, age 7, struggling in the pool below.

Shaw said he knew his nephew couldn’t swim. So, the report says, he “instinctively” leaped off the balcony, “landing painfully on the concrete below.” It said he brushed off the “intense pain in his legs” and was able to “crawl” to the pool, save his nephew, then grab hold of the ladder and haul himself out of the pool “with his upper body.”

The kid made it, but was nonetheless “traumatized,” Shaw told the press office. “I would do it again for whatever kid it was, it did not have to be my nephew,” Shaw explained, adding that he sustained two high ankle sprains that would “indefinitely” keep him out of the game. “My ankles really hurt,” he said, “but I am lucky to be surrounded by the best trainers and doctors in the world.”

Coach Sarkisian trumpeted the feat: “That was a heroic act by Josh, putting his personal safety aside. But that’s the kind of person he is.”

Shaw’s dad was not at the “function,” he explained in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, but assured that “that’s Josh for you. That’s about all you need to know about him.”

The NCAA smelled a story. One hour after the USC release, it tweeted out Shaw’s quotes and his picture to its 1.2 million followers.

But was it true? The college football masses have been had before.

And indeed, it turns out Shaw’s name had popped up on Saturday in circumstances beyond poolside heroism. Los Angeles Police spokesman Andy Neiman told the Associated Press that Shaw’s name was in a police report involving a break-in at a downtown apartment building. Cops heard word that night of a woman screaming in her downtown building, so they went to investigate. The woman told police, according to the AP, that someone had pried open a window to her apartment — then bolted. Several witnesses said a man had run across the third floor’s balconies.

One provided a description of the man, the Los Angeles Times reported. And a woman “responded to the description with words to the effect, ‘That sounds like my boyfriend, Josh Shaw,'” Neiman told the Times. Another individual told police Shaw was out to dinner that night, and the front desk attendant explained Shaw hadn’t been registered as a guest.

“There is mention of a Joshua Shaw in this report, but not in terms of him being a suspect,” the police told AP. “To make any link at this point would be premature.”

Terrence McCoy covers poverty, inequality and social justice. He also writes about solutions to social problems.

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