Penn State's Portland in a Storm | Left Field | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Penn State's Portland in a Storm

A coach fails to learn a badly needed lesson

In April, Penn State University handed down a decision following an in-house investigation of women's basketball coach Rene Portland, who had allegedly been operating the women's basketball program in violation of the university's non-discrimination policy.

Penn State's actions were unprecedented. Portland's response was not. She responded to the decision the way she has responded all along: with defiance.

Following a lawsuit filed by Jennifer Harris — who charged that Portland removed her from the team because she thought Harris was a lesbian — Penn State engaged in its own investigation of Portland's conduct. The school found that Portland had created a "hostile, intimidating and offensive" environment, violating the non-discrimination policy the school adopted in 1991. Penn State fined Portland $10,000, and stated that she would be dismissed for any future violation. Coach Portland was likewise ordered to undergo professional development counseling, "devoted to diversity and inclusiveness."

According to Helen Carroll of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, who acts as lead counsel for Harris, Penn State's decision "set precedent in finding a coach in contravention of a non-discrimination policy based on sexual orientation. This has never happened before." In essence, Penn State's decision "means that there is a preponderance of evidence consistent with what Jen Harris claimed in terms of a hostile environment based on perceived sexual orientation."

Some have decried the decision as a mere slap on the wrist; the fine is not much for the handsomely remunerated Portland. But the decision is a groundbreaking admission on the part of Penn State.

Portland, though, isn't admitting to anything. In the immediate aftermath of the PSU ruling, she read her own statement to the press.

"I believe the process that was used to reach these conclusions was flawed," Portland told reporters. Penn State's investigation "failed to fairly consider and weigh all of the relevant information," she maintained, adding that her actions regarding Harris "were basketball-related and basketball-related only."

The hubris was astonishing, as was Penn State's non-reaction to her statement, which smacks of denial.

"Based solely on her statement to the press," attorney Carroll says, "I don't see how anything will change for Rene."

In fact, this won't be the first time that Portland undergoes sensitivity training. In 1992, Pat Griffin, professor at the University Massachusetts-Amherst and author of Strong Women, Deep Closets, held a training seminar at Penn State, just after the school first included sexual orientation in its non-discrimination policy and amid earlier controversy surrounding the Portland program. Of that experience, Griffin wrote, "All coaches were required to attend the workshop, and many were tired of the attention and uproar surrounding the [Portland] controversy. … Anger and discomfort were the predominant feelings in the room. … That night at Penn State, I saw how far we had to go and how difficult the journey could be."

Nobody changes unless they want to change. If Portland attends the sensitivity training with a closed mind and closed heart, she won't learn anything. And that's her right, as it is her right to believe that homosexuality is wrong. But her employer has laid down the law. Can she obey it? If she can't, she should consider leaving Penn State and coaching at a privately funded institution more in step with her beliefs.

Meanwhile, whistle-blower Harris is doing very well. She's studying at James Madison, where she is flourishing under the tutelage of coach Kenny Brooks. Last week, Harris traveled with her team to Italy for a basketball tournament.

Perhaps she learned a valuable lesson from sports. I recently read an interview with food critic Molly O'Neill, sister of former Yankees great Paul O'Neill, who said, "As women, we're raised to personalize loss, but if you know sports from an early age, you learn that there's always another game the next day."

With fall in the air and students returning to campus, Harris, at James Madison, looks to recapture some of her glory on the court; so too, does Portland, in turning her program back toward previous glory and cleaning up her reputation and legacy.

I hope both are successful. But at the moment I have more faith in Harris.

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