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'Training Rules' casts personal shadows over Rene Portland controversy

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By Cyd Zeigler jr.

“To be part of that crucial part of an individual’s life is really important to us, and those of us that coach at this age group understand that responsibility.”

It’s like a cruel joke when former Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland says this 18 minutes into the new documentary, “Training Rules.” The film chronicles Portland’s reign of terror of almost 30 years at Penn State and documenter her routine of threatening her players, creating a deeply homophobic environment on the team and systematically kicking women off her team for being lesbians or even for being a suspected lesbian. In 2005, Portland removed standout player Jennifer Harris from the team and Harris believed it was because Portland suspected she was gay. Harris filed a lawsuit with the National Center for Lesbian Rights; That prompted former Penn State players to come out of the woodwork corroborating Harris’ story. And in that lies the crux of “Training Rules.”

When I first heard about the film, I wondered how the filmmakers would tell the story without being able to talk to Portland and Harris, both of whom are bound by court settlement to not discuss the case. The only time Harris was speaking on screen was reading a statement written by her lawyer; Portland, predictably, refused to meet the filmmakers. The filmmakers took the muzzle on its two stars as an opportunity. The point of the film isn’t to simply tell the story of Rene Portland’s homophobic reign of terror and the young women she tossed into the gutter: It’s meant to make you feel it. When former player Lisa Faloon says, “Rene explained to all of us that we weren’t to talk to a lesbian, and if we were a lesbian, she specifically said, I will take your scholarship away and you will never play basketball again,” it lays the foundation for a series of stories of heartache from women who didn’t have the strength to stand up to Portland and the juggernaut of Penn State athletics. The film focuses on a half dozen other women, straight and gay, who were victims of Portland’s intolerance. Hearing women who played for Portland from 1980 to the late 1990s talk about how Portland undermined their self-confidence, attacked them, and shattered their lifelong dreams is heart-wrenching.

For some reason, the most emotional aspect of the film for me was listening to Jennifer Harris’ parents, Lambert and Pearl, talk about what Portland did to their daughter. They share home movies of Jennifer running a race at the age of 3 and we hear from her childhood track coach about her ultimate dream: Be a world-class athlete. In high school, there was no one in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania who could beat her in hurdles or the long jump. She was called maybe the best girls’ basketball player ever from her high school district. She was named to the All-State basketball team. In her senior year, she was rated one of the top 20 basketball players in the country. She had a promising future ahead of her and her sights were set squarely on the WNBA.

Hearing her parents and coaches and sports commentators talk about her in this way makes Jennifer’s story about so much more than just her. So when later in the film we find out that Portland destroyed Jennifer’s hopes and dreams and destroyed her as a person, it’s much more than that one person we feel for: An entire community was shattered by the intolerant actions of one homophobic woman, and we’re left wondering how many others were hurt for each of the half dozen women we hear from in the film.

“Someone did die,” Lambert Harris says about the night Jennifer was kicked off the team. “Jennifer’s spirit died that night. I never seen her smile or laugh since that day. She started speaking in a whisper. There were times when we didn’t know if she was going to kill herself or not. We were frightened.”

All of this unfolds against a paradoxical atmosphere in which Rene Portland continued to be praised by her fellow coaches, lauded by sports columnists and put on a pedestal by Penn State fans. The driving force behind all of that: Win and you can do anything to anyone you want; you’ll be protected. The athletic department handed Portland the keys to her castle as she put together winning season after winning season. Portland would threaten her players and tell them that no one, not even the athletic department, could stop her from kicking lesbians off her team. Everyone, including the NCAA itself, sat by and watched while Portland exacted her homophobic attacks on these teenagers and young women.

The filmmakers do a fantastic job of establishing the power of big-time college athletics, particularly winning coaches and winning programs. But USA Today’s Christine Brennan encapsulates the real problem: “I will not recruit black people. I will not recruit Jewish people. I will not recruit Asian people. How quickly would that woman be fired?” Regardless of any coach’s win-loss record, national championships or the support of boosters, the coach that made those statements would be fired before week’s end. While the protective cocoon of big-time sports is important to the story, the bigger problem is that sexual orientation is still not protected by colleges and the NCAA as race is. Changing that dynamic is one of the potential results of Harris’ public victory and the documentary film itself.

The cruelest joke of all is that Jennifer Harris isn’t gay. Portland got it wrong. The coach sacrificed the success of her team for a hunch she had about one of her best players, and she has paid dearly since. If Portland hadn’t kicked Harris off the team, she’d still be the head coach of the Penn State women’s basketball team, and Harris would likely be in the WNBA right now. Those were heavy prices these two women had to pay for progress. After an hour of former Penn State players telling their stories and pouring their hearts out to the filmmakers, you’re left wondering if Jennifer Harris thinks her sacrifice was worth saving other women from the persecution of Rene Portland. If this film is successful in telling Harris’ story to a mass audience, she’ll likely save the lives and careers of many more men and women than she had ever thought possible.

The film is produced and directed by Award-winning documentary filmmakers Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker. Running time: 61 minutes. It is appearing in special engagements over the next few months; You can find the schedule here.