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Reprimand at Penn State

April 19, 2006

Pennsylvania State University has fined Rene Portland, its women’s basketball coach, $10,000 and sent her a written reprimand after an internal investigation concluded that she had violated the university’s anti-bias policy by creating a “hostile, intimidating and offensive environment” for a former basketball player whom Portland believed was a lesbian.

Jennifer Harris, the former Penn State athlete, left the team in 2005 after she said Portland told her she would not be welcomed back. Harris has since filed a federal lawsuit against the coach, alleging that Portland discriminated against her on the basis of her race and her perceived lesbian sexual orientation. The suit also names the university and its director of athletics, Tim Curley. Harris, who is black and has said that she is straight, said that Portland repeatedly asked about her sexual orientation and told players not to associate with her. Harris also said the coach instructed her to look more feminine.

On Tuesday, Harris said that Penn State didn’t go far enough in punishing Portland. "I am disappointed by this result," she said in a statement released by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an organization that filed the suit on her behalf. "Penn State did not take the allegations seriously and does not appear interested in solving the underlying problem."

Portland continues to deny wrongdoing, saying in a statement that “I believe the process that was used to reach these conclusions was flawed.... I want to state that it has always been my belief that all actions taken with respect to the player bringing the claims against me were basketball-related and basketball-related only and were not based on sexual orientation, actual or perceived.”

The internal investigation did not find Portland guilty of racial discrimination. The federal lawsuit filed by Harris is scheduled for mediation.

In addition to the written reprimand -- which notes that any further violations by Portland of Penn State's anti-bias policy violations would lead to her dismissal -- Graham B. Spanier, the university's president, has ordered Portland to participate in a professional development program devoted to diversity and inclusiveness.

A university statement noted that while the report from Penn State’s director of affirmative action recommended a one-game suspension in the fall, Spanier decided it more appropriate and timely to impose a monetary sanction instead. For the next three years, Penn State will also conduct exit interviews with women’s basketball players to see if the anti-bias policies are being followed.

Harris, as part of the lawsuit, is asking the university to conduct diversity-related training for members of the athletics department. She also is seeking a new university policy that would make it easier for athletes to report perceived discrimination.

Portland, considered to be a top women’s basketball coach, has faced allegations of anti-lesbian bias in the past, even admitting she did not want lesbians on her team.

Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, said that while she is “pleased that [Harris] has been vindicated, when it comes down to it, [Portland] gets a slap on the wrist.” She added that “this is a coach who refuses to recognize that she has done anything wrong.”

Some who have followed the situation said anything short of a dismissal was inappropriate. “It’s disappointing,” said Heather Barber, a University of New Hampshire associate professor who co-wrote a journal article last year that dealt with lesbian female coaches in the NCAA. “We felt we were gaining momentum as far as tackling homophobia in sports, but this indicates it doesn’t seem to have been taken as seriously as we thought in this case.”

Ed Rowe, president of Allies, a queer political action group at Penn State, said his reaction to the university’s censure of Portland was mixed. “On one hand, I’m pleasantly surprised that this president has acknowledged that there’s been a problem with homophobia and discrimination. On the other hand, the fact she is allowed to continue to be in a position of power over students is disturbing.”

Pat Griffin, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and director of “It Takes a Team,” a project that promotes education about sexual orientation in women’s sports,  said the decision shows that “you can’t have this kind of discrimination without bad publicity. Up to this point, there was a sense that you could discriminate with impunity. This ends that era.”

 

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