Step in right direction, but so much further to go

Updated: April 19, 2006, 7:12 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

Penn State handed down its disciplinary measures regarding women's basketball coach Rene Portland on Tuesday. Those with views from all sides of the issue are likely left unsatisfied to some degree.

Rene Portland
AP Photo/Pat LittleRene Portland won 606 games at Penn State, but her legacy is dotted by discrimination allegations.

This is the third column I've written about the Portland-Jennifer Harris situation since Harris' lawsuit was filed last fall. In some ways, I'm just repeating myself a lot. But I'll state again that I've received hundreds of e-mails in response to the previous columns, from Portland's supporters and detractors.

I don't know whether Penn State's measures that were announced Tuesday will change anyone's mind about anything. A report on the situation -- which was authored by Dr. Kenneth Lehrman, the director of affirmative action at Penn State -- was accepted by university president Graham Spanier, who acknowledged that "certain elements of the complaint could be interpreted differently by reasonable people, but that the preponderance of evidence supported a conclusion that discrimination had taken place."

More specifically, the report said:

"There was no evidence to substantiate Harris' claim of race discrimination. [But] enough evidence existed to substantiate a claim that Portland discriminated against Harris by creating a 'hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment' because of Harris' perceived sexual orientation. This is in violation of Penn State Policy AD-42, which prohibits discrimination and harassment on the basis of race, sexual orientation, and other personal characteristics."

Portland answered later Tuesday with her own statement -- with no questions taken from reporters afterward -- denying that she had done anything wrong and criticizing the decision-making process involved in the report.

For those who think that Portland has a long-standing pattern of discriminating against Penn State players who are lesbians or are perceived by her to be lesbians, probably only Portland's departure from the program would have been acceptable. They'll see this as nothing more than wrist slap, a token gesture, a "here we go again."

Then there are those who believe that Harris -- the former Penn State player who made the allegations that resulted in the school's investigation and who has a pending lawsuit against Portland -- is not necessarily the best witness for herself. That perhaps she had attitude issues that made it difficult for her and Portland to coexist.

Even so, those with that belief have to wonder whether the atmosphere in the program -- which the university report gives credence to -- prompted or at least exacerbated Harris' alleged poor attitude. And they also must realize that Portland has a history that can't be ignored.

The [NLCR] site also includes a statement from Jen Harris: "I am disappointed by this result. Penn State did not take the allegations seriously and does not appear interested in solving the underlying problem."

Harris' sentiment is understandable considering her point of view, but I don't completely agree. I don't think Penn State is "uninterested" in solving the problem, but rather that the school isn't really sure how to do it and is also hamstrung because Rene Portland is a powerful figure at the university.

For this group, the university-imposed penalties -- a letter of reprimand, a requirement to participate in a diversity-awareness experience and a $10,000 fine -- seem to take at least a step toward clarifying there is a problem on Portland's end and addressing it.

Yet they also might be wondering whether you can have much hope that Portland will glean anything from the university's report when, in her statement to the media Tuesday, she said, "I believe the process that was used to reach these conclusions was flawed. … Because we are engaged in litigation brought by a single former player, I am restricted in what I can say about this matter. I do believe, however, that when all of the facts relevant to the claims are fully examined in the judicial process, my actions will be vindicated."

That's more or less saying, "Dr. Lehrman, you've just wasted your time."

But then there is the point of view that Portland's version of what happened -- that Harris did not live up to the standard that Portland requires in terms of a player's commitment to the basketball team -- is true and that Portland didn't deserve any sanctions at all. In other words, that the university's report is not accurate. There are two camps here, as best I can tell.

One believes: "Look, Rene may or may not have made life difficult for lesbian players in the past … but she doesn't really do it anymore. Jen Harris just said that because she got kicked off the team."

The other is: "Homosexuality is wrong, and Portland has a right to keep it out of her program any way she thinks is necessary."

As to the latter point of view, people can and probably will argue until the end of time about homosexuality. But Penn State has a nondiscrimination policy, and its employees are supposed to adhere to it.

Harris has said she is not gay but was discriminated against because Portland perceived her to be. Her lawsuit was filed with the help of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. There is a court-ordered mediation scheduled for May, but NCLR senior counsel Karen Doering said in a statement Tuesday on the center's Web site, "We do not hold out much hope for a negotiated resolution at this stage, given Penn State's anemic response and Coach Portland's continued denials and failure to acknowledge that her discriminatory and unlawful behavior needs to change."

The site also includes a statement from Harris: "I am disappointed by this result. Penn State did not take the allegations seriously and does not appear interested in solving the underlying problem."

Harris' sentiment is understandable considering her point of view, but I don't completely agree. I don't think Penn State is "uninterested" in solving the problem, but rather that the school isn't really sure how to do it and is also hamstrung because Portland is a powerful figure at the university.

Portland has spent more than a quarter century at Penn State, which gave her a contract extension in 2004, the same year she was WBCA Coach of the Year. She took her team to the Final Four in 2000 and the Elite Eight in 2004. Under her coaching, Kelly Mazzante became the Big Ten's all-time leading scorer (2,919 points).

Portland and her husband, John, donated $500,000 to endow two scholarships for student-athletes at Penn State. There are former Penn State players who would tell you she was an excellent coach, and they wouldn't be lying. To them, she was. But there are also former players who will tell you that she hurt them a great deal.

All of this is a big part of what has made the whole Portland vs. Harris saga -- and the rest of the "iceberg" of Portland's tenure at Penn State -- so sad. Portland has played a very important role in the development of women's basketball, from her days as a player at one of the first dynasties of the game, Immaculata, to her coaching success both at the collegiate and USA Basketball levels.

She can be funny and insightful. No doubt, she has given a lot of good advice to kids over the years.

However, Portland also has said things that have irritated, angered and even damaged people -- from players to fans to fellow coaches. While, some of that didn't have anything to do with homosexuality, that's the issue that has defined her in the eyes of many women's basketball followers.

For those still unfamiliar with the story, I'll try to somewhat briefly fill in the background.

Her first public acknowledgment that she didn't want gay players as part of her program came in 1986. Those sentiments were revealed again in newspaper stories in 1991. Penn State responded then by adding sexual orientation to its antidiscrimination policy, and Portland went through what was labeled as diversity-sensitivity training.

Penn State apparently thought that was enough. Portland's teams won games and her players graduated. If the rumble remained about how she still dealt with players who didn't quite fit her notion of what a woman was supposed to look and/or act like in terms of adhering to a so-called stereotypical heterosexual "norm," Penn State either did not hear it or chose to ignore it.

All coaches recruit players they think will "fit in their system," and for some that system is much more than just what happens on the court. For most of the time between 1991 and 2005, Portland perhaps weeded out recruits who might have conflicted with her alleged viewpoints, or they weeded themselves out. Also, Portland and some lesbian players who came to Penn State were able to coexist. After 1991, Portland avoided comment on the issue.

Harris played two seasons at Penn State. The night Penn State was upset in the first round of the 2005 NCAA Tournament, Harris and fellow players Lisa Etienne and Amber Bland were told they were off the team.

That was followed by several days of bizarre rumors and speculation, because Portland initially did not state publicly that she'd removed them from the program. There were a series of releases and statements from the Penn State sports information department that were muddled and unclear. Message boards were rife with chatter.

The story Penn State wanted everyone to accept was that the three players left of their own accord. When the players denied that, the speculation only intensified. People who follow women's basketball wanted real explanations. Nobody at Penn State provided them.

If President Spanier and athletic director Tim Curley rue the headache that the last year has been involving the women's basketball program -- and you would assume they do -- then they need to look square in the mirror and think back to the spring of 2005 and their lack of an effective response to the situation.

Etienne and Bland went away without saying much, but Harris didn't. Whether you believe Harris, it appears that no one in an authority position at Penn State listened to her -- or if they did, they didn't act to mend the situation before it reached lawsuit status in the fall.

According to the university's own report, Harris had reason to feel discriminated against. Now, she is at James Madison University. And Portland is still the coach at Penn State.

Will Portland, despite what she said publicly Tuesday, actually take to heart -- or at least think about -- what this report said? Will she change anything about the way she deals with some players? Will recruits and their parents/advisors be fully aware of all of this and will it impact their decision making?

If so, how might that in turn impact the future of Penn State's women's basketball program? And how will the lawsuit be resolved?

There's still a great deal up in the air. Ultimately, that's the feeling I'm left with after Tuesday.

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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