Women's Hoops Blog

Inane commentary on a game that deserves far better

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

A Brief History of Rene Portland and the L Word.

Rene Portland played on the famed Immaculata teams of the early 70s. After her playing days were done, she went into coaching. In 1980, Joe Paterno, who was both football coach and Athletic Director at the time, brought her in to take over the Penn State women's basketball program.

It wasn't long before rumors circulated that Rene had a "no lesbians" policy.

Shortly after Portland arrived, three players left due to what Rene called "principle differences." Later in the 80s, a student filed an internal complaint alleging that she had been kicked off the team because she was a lesbian, but after investigating the matter, the school took no action.

In 1986, Portland told the Chicago Sun-Times about her no-lesbians policy, and how she brought it up with parents on recruiting trips. "I will not have it in my program," she said. "I bring it up and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved."

That public statement merely confirmed what was common knowledge among many close to the program. And yet there was little response from the school, the athletic department, or anyone else.

The watershed moment for this story came on March 10, 1991, when Jere Longman (then with the Philly Inquirer, now with the New York Times) published an article exposing Portland's policy. Longman interviewed several players.

"She does make it known when she's recruiting that she doesn't put up with homosexuality," Suzie McConnell (now Serio) said.

"She tells you, flat out, 'I don't have any appreciation for the homosexual lifestyle. I won't have that on my team,'" said Patti Longenecker.

Others later confirmed that Portland announced her "no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians" policy each year. As one lesbian and former Lions player told the LA Times (April 6, 1992):
She said it the first day of practice in my first year. I remember at the team meeting in my second year I was so afraid that it was going to be like the first. She made the point very strongly. It was a very negative statement. No one said anything. I just remember it affected me. Of the meeting, all I remember is that one moment. That sticks in my mind. It will be in my mind forever.
As another player told the NCLR much later:
I'm not a lesbian, but when I played for her I was afraid she might think I was and take away my scholarship. I started changing the way I dressed, started going out with a guy I didn't like, just to stay on the team. It meant my academic career, that scholarship.
Liz McGovern, a graduate assistant under Portland, later confirmed that Rene's recruiting letters told parents that she had no lesbians on her squad.

At the time of Longman's article, many supported Portland's rules. "I like that she took that stance," Meggan Yedsena, who went to Nebraska after being recruited by PSU, told Longman. Yedsena explained that Rene was just trying to erase the stigma of lesbianism from women's sports.

Portland herself would neither confirm nor deny the policy. All she said to Longman was: "I have training rules. And I will never have to say what my training rules are."

After Longman's article, the story blew up on Penn State's campus and elsewhere. Students picketed when PSU hosted an NCAA tournament game the following week (the Lions lost to James Madison in an upset). Protesters later occupied the administration building and jammed the phone lines.

Rene still said nothing. The athletic department took no action, just as it had taken no action for the previous decade. Times columnist Robert Lipsyte, who picked up and pursued the story, called Paterno. Joe Pa, then and now the most beloved and powerful figure at the school, refused to disavow Rene's policy and refused to say whether he'd kick a gay player off his football team.

Students and faculty demanded that the school take action to override Rene's policy and to protect gay and lesbian students.

Embattled school president Joab Thomas would not support a specific policy banning orientation discrimination. The Faculty Senate went over Thomas's head and voted 93-12 to recommend adding a sexual orientation provision to the school's existing antidiscrimination policy. The Trustees accepted the recommendation.

Portland and Paterno both apparently opposed the efforts to ban orientation discrimination. Lipsyte reported in June of '91: "In recent interviews on the subject, Penn State staff and faculty members are guarded, seemingly fearful of incurring the athletic department's wrath."

Pat Griffin was brought in to run a mandatory workshop on homophobia for all PSU coaches. (Pause for a moment to appreciate the visual: Rene, Joe Pa, and the rest of the athletic department forced to sit in a room while famous lesbian activist Pat Griffin lectures them on the evils of homophobia. Oh... my kingdom for a photo.)

When asked later how the workshop went, Griffin responded flatly: "Not so good."

Rene finally broke her silence (sort of) in an December '91 interview with Lipsyte. She refused to say whether she agreed with the policy or what she would do to comply.
That is a policy I have to work under as an employee of the university. That's all I'll say about it.
You didn't have to be particularly skilled at reading between the lines to understand the gist of Portland's feelings.

Given Portland's history and her thinly-veiled disdain for the antidiscrimination policy, you have to wonder: If you were a lesbian basketball player, would you consider going to Penn State? If you were a player on Portland's team, would you feel comfortable coming out of the closet?

If the answers to those questions are no, then it's hard to avoid the conclusion that Portland was allowed to keep a straight-only program, de facto, even if she was no longer allowed to say so out loud. In short, Penn State passed a policy, but it's unclear whether the school took any action to give the policy teeth or to ensure that lesbians felt welcome on the basketball team.

The usual defense of Portland goes like this: That was a long time ago, things were different back then; she, like lots of us, has probably changed her mind.

But there's no evidence to support that defense. In fact, when the Washington Post's Greg Sandoval called her for comment in 2003, she basically gave the same line that she had given in 1991.
In a recent interview, Portland didn't sound as if she has changed her mind about not wanting lesbians on her team.

"I'm going to be honest with you: Penn State has rules and to stay the basketball coach. I follow those rules," said Portland.
Whatever rumors have circulated in the last decade, there has been no real way for any of us on the outside to know what happens in the Happy Valley.

Now Jen Harris has come forward and alleged that Rene still discriminates against lesbians despite school policy. What remains hidden — both at Penn State and elsewhere in the world of women's college basketball — may finally be exposed.

Longman's 1991 article began: "Want a fight? Rene Portland will give you one."

Time will tell whether she's finally picked a fight that she'll lose.

Related Posts:

1. March 2005: Harris kicked off the team for reasons unclear.
2. May 2005: Still weird.
3. October 2005: Harris files suit, and Portland responds.
4. December 2005: Outside the Lines covers the case.
5. December 2005: An overview of Harris's legal claims.
6. December 2005: document archive.
7. February 2006: An overview of the defendants' motions to dismiss.
8. March 2006: Case update.
9. April 2006: PSU completes its investigation, reprimands Portland.