For 45 glorious minutes on Monday morning, Mark Emmert spoke for most of us. He spoke for the innocent victims of serial pedophile Jerry Sandusky and the stunned onlookers who wondered why Penn State left him alone. He didn't speak for Penn State fans, but he spoke to them when he denounced the "hero worship" that created the culture that empowered Joe Paterno and spawned Sandusky's free reign from 2001-11.
Emmert was the hand of vengeance we've all wanted to swing at Penn State -- to stick up for the innocent victims of Sandusky, and to punish the evil cowards who covered for him.
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Emmert swung that hand with fury, yet compassion. The NCAA thrashed Penn State football to within an inch of its life, crushing the football program but not the school or surrounding community. He said everything you wanted him to say, and everything I didn't want him to say -- but he said it so powerfully, so unsparingly, that he convinced me I'd been wrong when I wrote that the NCAA had no business judging Penn State.
Bravo to Mark Emmert for saying this. He spoke for you, me and everyone out there who was horrified, repulsed and ultimately furious with a school that would allow a child predator to run free because the apprehension of Jerry Sandusky -- regardless of how many boys it would have protected -- might have damaged its football team and coach.
The NCAA hit Penn State so hard that it should sink to the bottom of the Big Ten, yet hit it so intelligently that Penn State will have no choice but to sink anyway. The school can't make like Tulane basketball in 1985, when the Green Wave were caught up in a point-shaving scandal and simply did away with basketball for a few years. Penn State won't have that luxury, because the school has been fined $60 million -- and it needs football to pay that fine.
Penn State football will lose games but make money, which is the best possible result. The local community needs Penn State football, needs it more than Dallas needed SMU in 1987 or more, really, than just about any small college town needs its big college football program. State College, Pa., would have been devastated by the death penalty. Emmert was aware of that when he said the NCAA considered but rejected that sanction because it "would bring unintended harm to many that had nothing to do with this case."
Current Penn State football players and recruits will feel "unintended harm," but they have an out. They can leave and play immediately elsewhere, or they can stay at Penn State on scholarship -- whether they keep playing or not.
Meanwhile, Penn State fans will still come to games, still buy merchandise, still pump money like coal into that furnace. But the money will not be used toward better facilities, more leather chairs in the locker room, more flat-screen televisions in the player lounge. The money will be used to support the fight against child abuse, and to support its victims.
The NCAA did well here, better than any of us could have imagined. This is not a good day, so don't misread that. This is not a day to celebrate, although as in all things on this day, Mark Emmert said it better than I could -- so take it from him:
"I want to be very clear," he said, "there is nothing in this situation for anyone to feel good about."
Then he thought about the victims, many of whom were victimized after Penn State knew Sandusky was out there.
"What predicament did they find themselves in?" Emmert wondered. "What circumstances did they have to suffer through?"
Chilling words, but the right thing to say. Emmert devoted as much time as he could, in this press conference about Penn State and the NCAA, to remember the victims. Over and over he returned to them, to their families, to their suffering. So did Oregon State president Ed Ray, chair of the NCAA's Executive Committee that empowered Emmert to streamline the process and sanction Penn State swiftly.
Ray spoke of the "conspiracy of silence at the highest levels" and the "leadership failures at Penn State" and then raised his voice -- literally, he got louder -- when he sent the following warning to everyone else under the NCAA's watch:
"This should serve as a stark wake-up call to everyone involved in college sports that our first responsibility," Ray said, "is to adhere to the fundamental values of respect, honesty, responsibility."
I can't speak for anyone else, but Monday was damn sure a wake-up call to me. For months I've argued that this wasn't an NCAA issue, that Penn State hadn't cheated, that it was up to the criminal and civil courts to judge the school. I argued, to my utter shame, that the NCAA didn't have "jurisdiction."
And that's still how I felt Monday at 8:30 a.m. I started to feel nauseated. This was going to be bad. The NCAA was about to go where it had no business going. Those were my thoughts.
A live shot from the room where Emmert would speak was available online at 8:55 a.m., and now my heart was pounding. I was scared -- scared for Penn State, I guess.
Then Ed Ray spoke about "leadership failures" and the core NCAA values of responsibility. And Emmert started to speak, saying that the NCAA was about to demonstrate to Penn State and the world that "football [should] never again be placed ahead of educating, nurturing and protecting young people."
Then Emmert started to outline the sanctions, separating them with a single word that sounded like the pounding of the gavel. He was saying words with numeric meaning, but all I could hear was the word guilty.
First, Penn State is fined $60 million.
Second, no bowl games for four years.
Third, massive scholarship reductions.
Fourth, the school vacates all wins from 1998 to 2011. Paterno is no longer the winningest coach in Division I history. Too bad he's not alive to see it.
By now my nausea and accelerated heart rate had been replaced by goose bumps. This has not been a good story and Monday morning was not a good moment, but it was a meaningful point in time, one of the first times the NCAA has stared so unflinchingly into the abyss of college athletics and said, "We're not scared of you."
This was fearless leadership, the kind we've always wanted from the NCAA -- and the kind that could have saved so many boys from an evil man named Jerry Sandusky.