A Look Back At Rene Portland’s ‘No-Lesbian’ Lady Lions
On June 16, the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame announced former Penn State women’s basketball head coach Rene Portland will be a member of the organization’s 2017 induction class. The Philadelphia native coached the Lady Lions from 1980 to 2007, and her coaching record is nothing short of impressive. Portland became the ninth coach in NCAA Division I history to record 600 wins at one school. She is the sixth winningest Division I coach of all time, a four-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, and a two-time WBCA National Coach of the Year.
Portland’s 27-year tenure at Penn State encompassed a 606-236 career record, seven conference championships, eight conference tournament titles, and numerous NCAA tournament appearances during the Lady Lions’ time in the Atlantic 10 and Big Ten conferences. However, despite the accolades and extraordinary stats, Rene Portland’s career at Penn State is hindered by an alleged shadow of hate.
On June 16, 1986 (exactly 31 years ago to the date of her hall of fame induction announcement) Rene Portland discussed her stance against “lesbian activity” on her team with The Chicago Sun-Times. One of the first things Portland said she would bring up during recruiting visits with players and their parents is lesbian activity. Portland spelled it out plain and simple: “I will not have it in my program.”
The article, entitled “Lesbians In The World Of Athletics,” was published six years after Portland became head coach at Penn State. The article said that her “hard-line, no-compromise approach” only lost her one recruit who said she was “too judgmental.” Portland went on to say “I bring it up and the kids are so relieved and the parents are so relieved. But they would probably go without asking the question otherwise, which is really dumb.”
Portland employed this discriminatory philosophy over fears of the “guilt by association stigma” of homosexuality in women’s sports. “I have a fear for women’s athletics,” she stated, “because people are waiting for us to do something stupid and kiss this all goodbye.”
This attitude may seem out-of-line for someone referred to as “Mommy Coach,” but in 2006, former players began to speak out, and it all began with the dismissal of Jennifer Harris.
In March 2005, Harris was dismissed from the Lady Lions basketball team after her sophomore season by Rene Portland. Portland said her decision for Harris’ dismissal was “based solely on her performance on the basketball court and her inability to make a positive contribution to the team, nothing more,” according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Harris, however, believe it to be for another reason.
Harris claimed that she was kicked off the team because of her perceived sexual orientation, and in early 2006, Harris sued Portland, Penn State athletic director Tim Curley, and the university.
Harris, who said she is not gay, stated in court filings that Portland tried to force her to leave the team by “humiliating, berating, and ostracizing her.”
Harris’ legal battle against Portland and the university was documented in the film Training Rules. The film gathered the stories of Jen Harris and other former players that allege misconduct by Rene Portland on the grounds of their perceived sexual orientation. According to the documentary, Rene Portland had 3 rules: no drugs, no drinking, and no lesbians.
Yet despite all the accusations against Rene Portland, Jen Harris and other former players continued to praise the coach they claimed drove them away from the team. In an article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Jen Harris (after filling her discrimination lawsuit with the help of the National Center For Lesbian Rights) called Portland “one of the best coaches in women’s basketball, without a doubt.” In the same article, Cindy Davies, who also alleged Portland drove her away from the team in 1982, said “I felt — I still believe — she’s a good coach.”
After Harris filed suit, Davies and other former players such as Courtney Wicks came to her side to support her claims of discrimination. “She shouldn’t have the right to terminate your scholarship due to the fact that she doesn’t like your lifestyle,” Davies said. “It has to stop.”
As soon as these allegations starting coming out, Rene Portland started firing back. “The truth is this,” Portland declared, “the sexual orientation or race of any player or person is irrelevant to me.” Portland said she was “shocked and saddened” by Harris’s accusations, and that she had been a strong supporter of equal rights in women’s athletics for decades.
“I regret that her allegations are overshadowing, for some people, the success and achievements of our basketball program and our strong commitment to diversity and nondiscrimination,” Portland said.
Portland reiterated that Jen Harris was dismissed for basketball-related reasons and basketball reasons only. A university investigation, however, casted doubt on that claim. After Harris initially voiced allegations of discrimination based on perceived sexual orientation, as well as race, Penn State launched an investigation. The investigation found no evidence of race discrimination. It did, however, find some troubling evidence of Portland’s treatment of Harris.
The university investigation concluded that Portland created a “hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment” for Jen Harris due to her perceived sexual orientation. Portland called foul on the investigation — saying that it was “flawed” and that it “failed to fairly consider and weigh all of the relevant information provided or which could have been provided.”
Nonetheless, the university’s report stood by the investigation’s findings, and recommended Portland be suspended for one game. President Graham Spanier said he wanted a sanction that was “more immediate” and fined Portland $10,000 instead. In addition to the fine, she was also prescribed diversity training, and placed on a “zero tolerance” rule for any other infractions of discrimination.
Pat Griffin, who authored the book Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians And Homophobia In Sports, as well as commanded a university-wide diversity workshop in 1992, called the sanction against Portland “too little… way too late.”
Almost a year later, Harris’ lawsuit was settled outside of court. The terms of the settlement are confidential. “Penn State, Mr. Curley, and Coach Portland have disputed Ms. Harris’ allegations and have denied any liability with respect to the complaints filed against them,” a joint statement from the parties read. “Ms. Harris has agreed to permanently withdraw and end her legal actions against all parties.”
According to Daily Collegian archives, reactions to the settlement were mixed. Terrell Jones, the vice provost for education equality, said he was pleased to see a settlement, and that “it’s a good thing for us to move on and point toward the future.”
Others didn’t share the same sentiment. Christina Swomley, president of student LGBT rights group SpeakOut, said the case, overall, was an embarrassment to the university. “What does that say about the people at Penn State?” she asked.
The case was settled during the 2006-2007 season. This season would be Rene Portland’s last at Penn State. “This was obviously a very difficult decision,” Portland said when she announced her retirement. “I am very appreciative of the opportunity to coach at Penn State, which has become a special place for me and my family.”
Joe Paterno, who was also the athletic director at the time, hired Portland in 1980. She was the only head coach Paterno hired during his tenure as athletic director.
The concepts of legacies is an important one at Penn State, and one’s “true legacy” is always a matter of subjective distinction. When Rene Portland accepts her bid into the Philadelphia Sports Hall Of Fame on November 2, what will be enshrined in her’s? Twenty-one NCAA Tournament appearances, 0.720 career win percentage, and allegations of discrimination and homophobia? Legacies are a bit of an illusion; everyone looks at the same thing and sees something different.