Jim McElwain calls fervor over mistaken identity photo 'an indictment upon society'

DESTIN, Fla. -- One of the biggest stories of the offseason concerns a guy who resembles Jim McElwain laying naked on top of a dead shark in back of a boat.

You've probably seen the picture. 

You also couldn't have been more disgusted than the real Jim McElwain, Florida's head football coach.

"I think its an indictment upon society to be honest with you," he said during the SEC spring meetings here at the Hilton Sandestin.

Of course it is. The man who has won consecutive SEC East titles -- a family man with a couple of national championship rings -- suddenly found himself disproving a negative.

" … It effects family, it effects my employer because of something that is totally not true or has any basis," McElwain continued. "I will say this: At least it [looked like] me and not someone else in our program. I'll take [the hits]."

McElwain, 55, is a stand-up guy like most coaches in his position. He's used to putting out fires, making snap decisions, taking blame when it is fair. But in the blink of moment, he became a social media victim.

The photo, of course, was not of McElwain. One report said had he had been "vindicated." Of what? Vindication is defined as, "clearing someone of blame or suspicion."

Except there was no blame to clear, no crime committed. The only connection was our brains seeing a resemblance and somehow believing McElwain was capable of such a pose.  

Unfortunately, the default setting on the Twitterverse was that had to be Florida's coach. Right?

These days there are scandals conjured out of mid-air, followers to attract, Facebook accounts to be filled up.  Who cares if any of it is straight made up? Accountability has taken a holiday.

There is the truth and the version of the truth individuals anywhere can choose to believe. TMZ created the celebrity voyeur culture. The likes of Breitbart created -- for some -- a universe of "alternate facts."

Any schlub with a camera and a keyboard can create "content." What's the big deal jumping to conclusions about a shark, a boat and a coach?

Common human decency, for one thing. When it was determined the man on the shark was reportedly a former NYPD officer, one wag wrote, "We finally have proof of what appears to be McElwain's innocence."

What about assuming his innocence instead of what looked like a badly Photoshopped pic? Instead, that indicted society McElwain spoke of took it way too far.

It's one of the biggest stories of the season because of the way we reacted to it, tweeted about it. Yes, maybe even laughed about it. Not just the media, anyone who took the time to click on the image like we were slowing down to gawk at a highway wreck.

There was a time -- well, before the internet – when "viral" meant you had a cold. We have been conditioned by the curse that can be social media to immediately think the worst.

Suddenly, there were dueling narratives -- the photo itself, the reaction to the photo, and the hunt for the real shark defiler.

All of it stained the reputation of a decent man. It was clear Tuesday that McElwain was upset there were jokes made at his expense by faceless internet clowns.

"I go back to the days you used to have a [newspaper] beat writer, and you got to know them," McElwain said. "That guy's face was on everything they wrote. So, you know what, it better be right.

"It blows me away now. I can handle it, but you know what? I feel bad for [my family and team] for something that was totally made up."

Still, we all at least snickered. Didn't we? As much as we may decry the lowest-common-denominator aspect of social media, these sorts of wacky pictures can be a respite from the real world.

Except there was no real world in McElwain's world at that moment. He was immediately put on the defensive. The coach actually found out about the photo's existence from former linebacker Alex Anzalone.

"He was working out that morning," McElwain recalled. "He says, 'Mac, have you seen what people are talking about you?'

"I said, 'Jesus, what is that?'"

Unfortunately, there is no commissioner of decency or president of the Internet. The faux scandal now is part of McElwain's bio as far as Wikipedia is concerned. That's sad, too.

Part of me hates to consider McElwain might have been an easy target for folks to assume the worst. He's a jovial everyman sort. In other words, if you'd seen a resemblance in that photo to a more stern, grim coach, the immediate reaction would have been, "That can't be Woody Hayes!"

But in the end a lot of folks had a good laugh. Meanwhile, there were real victims -- McElwain, his family, his program and his school.

"Ultimately, what do you want me to say?" McElwain said. "It's not me. I felt bad for my family and the university because … really?

"Here I am getting some real bad personal attacks. How ridiculous is that?"

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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