(This story was published in 2005).
The bottom line is this: If Penn State women’s basketball Coach Rene Portland had said she did not want Jewish or black players on her team, she would have been fired within a week.
It has been 19 years, though, since Portland said she did not want lesbians on her team and she is still gainfully employed by the university (which has a non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation). And now Portland is lobbing accusations at a former player who said the coach ran her off the team perceiving she was a lesbian.
Last week, the National Center for Lesbian Rights sent a letter on behalf of former player Jennifer Harris to University President Graham Spanier, demanding that action be taken against Portland for her “decades-long policy of harassing players whom Coach Portland believed to be lesbians.” The complaint says that “despite Harris’ outstanding performance as a player during her two-year career at Penn State from 2003 to 2005, Coach Portland repeatedly questioned Harris about her sexual orientation, repeatedly threatened to kick Harris off the team if she found out Harris was a lesbian, and eventually told other players not to associate with Harris because she believed that Harris was gay. In 2005, Coach Portland abruptly told Harris to find somewhere else to play.”
In response, Portland (with a 578-204 record in 26 years of coaching) denied the charges and said that Harris had a poor attitude and work ethic and did not meet team performance standards on or off the court. "She engaged in disrespectful, profane and belligerent behavior toward coaches and teammates, and she exhibited a work ethic and attitude that were unsatisfactory and detrimental to the success of our team," Portland said. This upset NCLR, which said the comments were retaliatory and inaccurate. The group has threatened to sue unless Penn State retracts the statement.
“The October 14, 2005 statement contains numerous defamatory statements about Ms. Harris as an athlete and a student,” NCLR said in a statement. “These statements are belied by the public record of Ms. Harris’ exemplary athletic and academic record at Penn State. They also are flatly contradicted by public statements lauding Ms. Harris’ dedication and performance made by Coach Portland and members of her coaching staff as recently as the end of last season, immediately prior to Harris’ unlawful termination from the Penn State women’s basketball team. The University’s statement also includes false and discriminatory remarks about Ms. Harris’ attitude and work ethic. These remarks are not only false, they are based on offensive stereotypes that are a continuation of Coach Portland’s prior harassment of Ms. Harris based on her race, gender, and perceived sexual orientation.”
Harris, who has since transferred to James Madison and says she is not a lesbian, started in 22 games for Penn State in the 2004-05 season, averaging 10.4 points per game. She was third on the team in points (313), steals (38) and assists (42).
University spokesman Bill Mahon told AP that Portland was free to comment as she saw fit. "To demand that we take an individual's free speech away from them is wrong," Mahon said Monday. "I'm sure it's normal for anybody to respond when allegations are made against them in the front pages of newspapers."
"There is no First Amendment right to make false and malicious allegations," Karen Doering, Harris' lawyer with the NCLA, told the Daily Collegian. "It doesn't take a lot of investigation by the university to see that coach Portland's statement contains false information."
"We don't go out and fire people because somebody made an allegation," Mahon responded to the Daily Collegian. "I think the center ought to step back if they're interested in finding out what happened here. Why don't we let the process occur? We need a couple days to look into the allegations. We're happy to do that because they're serious allegations."
Helen Carroll, who runs the homophobia in sports project for NCLR, said the Portland case was significant. “This is the hottest case to ever hit women's sports concerning the treatment of perceived lesbian athletes and could be the case to really change climate in college athletics,” Carroll told Outsports.
“Negative recruiting,” where a coach subtly (or not) implying that a rival is gay in attempt to scare the parents of a recruit, is a dirty secret in women’s college basketball. Portland is not even subtle about her dislike of lesbians ("I will not have it in my program”) even though she said she fully supports the university's policy against discrimination. Her continued support from the Penn State administrators shows how pervasive homophobia is in the sports world.