The Trojan football team is no stranger to controversy.
Last year it was the firing of head coach Lane Kiffin and the departure of beloved interim head coach Ed Orgeron.
Before that it was He Who Must Not Be Named and the improper benefits that led to USC’s sanctions.
This year it’s Josh Shaw and Anthony Brown.
Shaw, the senior cornerback and recently-named co-captain, caused a media firestorm by claiming to have sprained his ankles while rescuing his nephew from drowning. He then left us all dumbfounded when he admitted to making all of it up.
I struggle to understand why he decided to fabricate such a far-fetched heroic story. He could have made any excuse and not brought such national attention to the story.
But Sports Illustrated senior writer Lee Jenkins, who spoke in my class Wednesday night, provided some thoughtful insight. He lamented the fact that many young athletes like Shaw don’t have the right people around them to advise them against rash decisions.
But it’s hard to imagine that there was nobody to advise Shaw otherwise when he has more than 100 teammates surrounding him, as well as a supportive and understanding coaching staff.
At Pac-12 Media Day this summer, junior co-captain and defensive end Leonard Williams harped on the fact that this was the tightest-knit group of players he had every played with.
“This is one of the closest teams I’ve ever played on,” Williams said. “I feel like the biggest part was just that we had to deal with so many coaching changes [last year]. We loved Coach O. We wanted him to be here. … Dealing with that we realized that this really is a job and at the end of the day coaches can come and go but we’re gonna have each other, so that’s how we got so close.”
Williams also sang the praises of the new coaching staff, who he said has been extremely open and helpful to all of the players.
“You can go up to them and talk to them about anything, it doesn’t have to be about football,” Williams said. “If we have a problem off the field we can go to our coach and ask them for advice and help and stuff like that.”
That sounds like exactly what Shaw needed this weekend — a handful of people to be there for him and steer him in the right direction.
On the heels of the news about Shaw, Sarkisian announced that senior running back Anthony Brown had decided to quit the team. Brown posted to multiple social media forums that Sarkisian was a racist.
Though what Williams called “one of the closest team he’s ever played on” might not have saved Shaw or Brown this time, it’s crucial that the Trojans continue to look to each other for support and get closer. They should band together, block out the media (except for this column, of course) and focus on preparing for their opening game against Fresno State this Saturday.
When I really think about it, I don’t think this should be that hard to do.
I might eat these words later if it turns out that Shaw was involved in some sort of criminal activity or that Sarkisian really does hold racist views, but Shaw’s lie and Brown’s allegations barely hold a candle to the controversy Trojans have faced in the past. Though they might be more bizarre, the consequences are far fewer — other than our families, friends and potential employers cracking jokes about this for years to come.
Despite all of the chaos, I doubt that Williams and the rest of the Trojans will step onto the field on Saturday afternoon thinking about their teammates’ follies.
Hopefully they will be thinking about giving their all each and every play. Hopefully they will be thinking about beating the Bulldogs.
Like senior co-captain and linebacker Hayes Pullard said after practice on Wednesday, “The game is played between the lines.”
The Trojans learned how to keep their focus on the field the hard way last year, somehow making a run for the Pac-12 South title despite the multiple coaching changes they endured.
I believe they can do it again. The turmoil the Trojans are going through to start this season will only make them closer, and, as Williams insisted, that will make a tangible difference on the field.
“[W]hen you’re close to someone they’re like your brother,” Williams said. “You’re gonna fight for your brother that’s next to you.”
Without Shaw and Brown, the remaining Trojans once again only have each other.
I fully expect the leaders of this team to step up, calm the storm and bring an extra spark of passion to the game on Saturday.
Fight on and Beat the Bulldogs.
Aubrey Kragen is a senior majoring in communication. She is also the sports editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Release the Kragen,” runs Fridays.