- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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I suppose the best way to start a column is not by stating how much you wish you weren't writing it. But that's the way it is with the ongoing Rene Portland story.
It's like a toothache that you try to ignore. Maybe you chew on the other side of your mouth, or take some aspirin. Maybe some days, you ignore it better than others.
But it doesn't actually go away. It's always there. And in this case, the toothache belongs to all of Division I women's basketball.
The Portland issue will be addressed Sunday morning (9:30 ET) on the ESPN show Outside The Lines. Folks who follow this sport regularly are well aware of what has been going on. For those who don't, we'll provide a brief recap.
Penn State's Portland is a prominent, successful head coach of a well-known program from a major conference. She was honored by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association as its Coach of the Year in 2004 and in 1991. She has
done a vast amount of charity work in her region, and she and her husband, John, have endowed two scholarships for Penn State student-athletes.
Portland is in her 26th season at Penn State. She has more than 670 career wins (including her two-year stays at St. Joseph's and Colorado before Penn State) and a trip to the Final Four in 2000. She certainly has her defenders among former players and people in the Penn State community.
She also has her detractors, because of her reputation -- which she herself built with comments to the media in the 1980s and early 1990s -- of not "tolerating" lesbians in her program. I've heard via e-mail from former players, their friends, women who as girls went to Portland's camps, people who claim to be friends with former Penn State coaches. I cannot verify all their stories, of course. I can only say these people believe Portland has done significant damage by what's perceived by them to be a "crusade" against gay players and coaches who -- in spite, apparently, of Portland's
efforts -- have ended up at Penn State.
To many fans who follow the women's game nationally, Portland has been, frankly, a coach who is not well-liked. The source of that scorn hasn't always been the gay issue, though. Sometimes it has just been things Portland has said that have not been taken well by other programs and their fans. But her seeming fixation on the issue of homosexuality has become, unfortunately, her signature as a coach.
Eleven days after a 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer story that discussed Portland's attitude toward lesbianism in her program, Penn State added a sexual orientation clause to its anti-discrimination policy as a university. Since then, Portland has largely avoided commenting on the issue, except to state she abides by the policy.
Then this past season, she dismissed three players from her team after Penn State had been upset by Liberty in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. One of those players, Jennifer Harris, has since filed a complaint against Portland with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.
Harris contends she wasn't removed from the team because of her athletic or academic efforts, nor because of her work habits or commitment to the program. Those were the reasons given by Portland. Harris, however, said Portland wanted her off the team because she was perceived to be a lesbian and was not conforming with so-called gender appearance stereotypes that Portland wanted.
The National Center for Lesbian Rights and the law firm of Hangley Aronchick Segal & Pudlin are representing Harris, who has since stated she is not a lesbian but believed Portland thought she was and discriminated against her because of it.
According to the NCLR's statement about the filing, "Coach Portland repeatedly inquired about Harris's sexual orientation, pressured Harris to change her appearance to be more 'feminine,' harassed and targeted Harris and other black athletes, and eventually told other players not to associate with Harris."
In the past couple of months, Portland has responded to the Harris situation mostly by refusing to talk about it, except to release two statements. That has sort of been standard operating procedure for someone in her position facing a legal issue, so it's not too surprising.
Left to do most of the day-to-day interaction with the media has been Penn State spokesman Bill Mahon. He was displeased when, in a late October column, I criticized the way the school has dealt with the issue. He subsequently informed me in an e-mail that he did not actually know Portland, but that he was defending her right of due process.
He was also, of course, defending the school. And the reality is, that's exactly what he's paid to do. I'd guess Mahon's job has not been very fun the last few months, and the same could be said for Erin Whiteside, the sports information contact for the Penn State women's basketball team. This is strictly my speculation -- neither Mahon nor Whiteside has said anything in that regard to any publication, to my knowledge.
But I think Portland has done what many people with a certain amount of power in any organization do when they are under attack: They refuse to answer questions about it and then leave other people to run interference for them.
The irony is Portland typically is never at a loss for words. She's quite intelligent and can often cut right to the heart of matters. That can be a good thing, and has been at many times in her career. But if you're on the receiving end of criticism or sarcasm from Portland, you might find yourself cut to pieces.
Now, though, she's mostly silent about this issue with Harris. And everyone at Penn State wishes it would just go away. The overwhelming amount of attention to athletics at the school is, obviously, on the stellar season coach Joe Paterno's football team has had. The volleyball team is one of the nation's best and is host to an NCAA regional this weekend. And Portland's team, despite being inexperienced, young and not deep, has won three games in a row and was 4-3 going into Friday night's game against Marquette.
This is a school with a commendable tradition in its commitment to women's athletics as a whole, not just basketball. Nobody in Penn State's athletic or academic administration wants to deal with this Portland issue. They want the toothache to magically disappear -- or perhaps even to convince themselves and everybody else that it was never there to begin with.
They want everyone to believe Jennifer Harris, Amber Bland and Lisa Etienne are just "bad apples" -- or at the very least, just not very good players -- who deserved to be kicked off their team right after a season-ending loss.
Bland and Etienne have gone away pretty quietly. Harris has not, so the issue has come down to her version of what happened vs. Portland's. With the overriding issue, also, of Portland's past, present and future behavior as Penn State's coach.
Here is part of the statement Portland released on Oct. 14 in response to Harris' allegations:
"First and foremost, let me make absolutely clear that the only reason Jennifer Harris is no longer with the Lady Lions is because of her performance and attitude in relation to basketball. Simply put, she did not meet the level of commitment I expect all players to have to this great program, which includes performance during games, performance during practices, physical conditioning and performance in the classroom. For example, 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."
One could assume, then, that Harris' alleged numerous shortcomings were a long-term issue and that she was given opportunity to remedy her behavior and did not. And one could also assume that if Harris was so grossly deficient in her performance, attitude and conditioning, she certainly wasn't capable of contributing at all to her team and therefore didn't play much last season. Right?
But Harris appeared in all 30 games, starting in 22. She averaged 25.8 minutes and 10.4 points per game last season. If Harris was so "detrimental" to Penn State, why did she play in every game?
No doubt, things began to go downhill for Harris in February, when she was taken out of the starting lineup. She might not have been performing as well as she is capable. The questions are: Were those attitude/performance problems severe enough to remove her from the program and were they triggered by Portland's alleged badgering of Harris, as the player claims?
It's impossible for someone who wasn't with the Penn State team every day to know that. We can only speculate.
But this fact remains: On the last night she was a member of Penn State's team, in the NCAA Tournament first-round game against Liberty, Harris played 20 minutes. She shot 2-for-10 from the floor. Teammate Tanisha Wright went 5 of 19 and Jess Strom went 5 of 15 in the game, so Harris was hardly alone in having an off night shooting.
Of course, Strom and Wright couldn't have been kicked off the team, because they were seniors and their careers were over anyway.
Bottom line: No matter what Portland says now about Harris' unsatisfactory performance last season, the coach still played Harris for 20 minutes last year when she wanted to avoid being upset in the NCAA Tournament. And as soon as that game was over and Portland didn't have an immediate need for Harris anymore, she cut her from the program. Right after that game. No "Let's cool down after this huge disappointment, and see if we can work things out over the summer." Just: "You're off the team."
It might be a little easier to accept Portland's version of how bad Harris was last year if Harris had been benched last season, period. But she wasn't. Not even close.
Then consider this: After her team's Elite Eight season in 2004, Portland signed a four-year contract extension. That happened in September 2004. So she had an infinite amount of job security -- but she certainly didn't want to lose in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. That's embarrassing to her record.
A victory over Liberty would have meant a 20-win season the year after losing star Kelly Mazzante. That would have been quite satisfactory for the program. So it appears Portland was willing to use Harris just long enough to try to get that.
Penn State has stuck behind its long-term employee, of course, and not the young woman who came there to represent the school and get an education. Welcome to college athletics. These things sometimes happen in all sports at all schools. When relationships go bad between a player and a coach, almost all of the time it's the player who's sent packing. Sometimes, deservedly so. But is this one of those times?
Who do you believe? But before you answer, remember the parameters that both Portland and Penn State have framed this debate in. I mentioned I've received several e-mails criticizing Portland, but I've also received a few supporting her. That support has typically expressed the belief that Portland has the right to oppose homosexuality and "protect" her straight players from it. That as head coach, she should be free to bring in whatever type of player she prefers and make the atmosphere what she's comfortable with.
However, that's not the defense that Portland and Penn State are using. Portland has said she abides by the anti-discrimination policy that the school has in place. So that's what you need to consider in this issue.
When Penn State introduced sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy 14 years ago, Portland had four choices:
• Leave the school, and get a job at a university that did not have such a policy.
• Change her viewpoint on the issue of homosexual players and adhere to the policy.
• Maintain her viewpoint on that issue, but find a way to set that aside and adhere to the policy.
• Don't change anything, don't adhere to the policy, but say publicly you do because you believe, ultimately, the school will always look the other way and back you up.
Decide for yourself which decision you think Portland made.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.
If Jen Harris was such a problem for Rene Portland at Penn State, then why did she appear in every game last season? And why did she play 20 minutes in PSU's final game, just hours before she was cut from the team?