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A Lesbian With the Heart of a Linebacker

(This story was published in 2002).

By: Debbie Woodell

Reprinted with permission by the Philadelphia Daily News

WHAT CYNDI BUTZ endured is beyond belief in this day and age.


The former outside linebacker for the Philadelphia Liberty Belles, a team in the National Women's Football League, was barraged with sexually charged remarks during her one season with the team.


She played only one season, unable to withstand the harassment anymore. But she didn't just walk away from the game she loves, she fought for change. And won.


Under a settlement reached this month, the Liberty Belles agreed to adopt a policy that prohibits sexual harassment and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.


The harassment took place during the Liberty Belles' inaugural season of 2001, their championship season. But that crown came with a steep price. She and other players heard such things as, "Too late, they're already dressed," from coaches walking into the dressing room trying to sneak a peek, or ugly remarks about cleavage and body parts when they were in street clothes.


The comments got personal when Butz was told, "It's a shame you don't like guys."


"It was stuff that really makes you uncomfortable, stuff that was uncalled for," Butz, 27, of South Philadelphia, recalled in a telephone interview.


Butz, who is out as a lesbian at her job at Banyan Productions, which produces the hit home-design show "Trading Spaces," said many of the 40 to 45 players on the roster were targeted with derogatory remarks. Only Butz came forward, enlisting the services of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights in Philadelphia and its legal director, Tiffany Palmer.


She filed a complaint last January with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which mediated the settlement.


Said Butz: "I am satisfied that the policy is set up...If I can take it further and help [all] women's sports, that will be the ultimate."


Team attorney Phil Berger declined to comment.


Comparing the NWFL with the higher-profile Women's National Basketball Association and the Women's United Soccer Association, Palmer noted: "Those [leagues] are in a little different place in the growing process. [They are] a little more sophisticated.


"These newer, smaller leagues are having growing pains."


Well, then, from ownership on down, it's well past time to grow up. No excuse is acceptable for that kind of shoddy treatment.


AT ANY rate, the NWFL can say good riddance to the Liberty Belles, who departed for another league after this just-completed season, apparently for reasons unrelated to the Butz case. Good thing, because, according to Debby Lening, league vice president for marketing and media, the NWFL has adopted a harassment policy in the wake of this matter.


The league opposes harassment, she said.


A new team, the Phoenix, will be in Philadelphia next season.


Butz expects to try out for the team and hopes that she, like a phoenix, will rise again.