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Heroic storytelling gets USC player suspended

In some sense, every one of us is a storyteller.

We tell each other and ourselves stories about who we are:  I am a nurse, I am a father, I am a sister, I am slow at learning math but fast with learning languages, I prefer cold to hot, I like baths but hate exercise, and so on.

We collect these ideas about ourselves into what the philosopher Daniel Dennett calls a “center of narrative gravity,” which he speculates is the only thing the “self” in myself, yourself, and ourselves, really is.

And of course, we go to movies, and read novels, and sometimes tell stories that everyone knows aren’t true, just for the enjoyment of it.

The question is, where is the line between stories that are acceptable and stories that get us into trouble?  History is littered with liars, so I won’t go into many examples except the one that’s relevant to this story.

Josh Shaw, a football player at USC, just discovered that his story had crossed that line.

The cornerback has confessed that he lied to the university about how he sprained his ankles the weekend before.  His version of the story was that he jumped off a balcony to save his drowning nephew.

After the university lauded him as a hero on the team’s website, an anonymous phone call tipped them off that the story was a fake.  Shaw is currently under suspension from the team.

The details of what actual happened aren’t quite as clear.  His name was mentioned in a police report about a break-in in LA, though he was not named as a suspect.

At this point, it also seems unclear why Shaw decided to fabricate the story.  Teammates describe him as a “leader” and “a great guy,” and expressed surprise that he would have done something like this.

Shaw had this to say for himself:

“On Saturday, August 23, 2014, I injured myself in a fall,” Shaw said. “I made up a story about this fall that was untrue. I was wrong not to tell the truth. I apologize to USC for this action on my part. My USC coaches, the USC athletic department and especially Coach Sarkisian have all been supportive of me during my college career and for that, I am very grateful.”

So the storytelling lesson that we can take from this might be this:  if you’re going to make up a story, do it in the appropriate setting, and for God’s sake, don’t try to fool people into thinking it’s the truth.  You’ll just piss them off, and that’s probably what got Shaw suspended.

Matthew Stensland-Bos explores consciousness, love, healing, and grounded spirituality in Know This Love, a weekly SFBay opinion column.  You can find him on his website,

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