Controversial Penn State Coach Resigns

Women's basketball leader had success on court but was accused of repeated anti-lesbian bias.
March 23, 2007

Rene Portland, whose 27-year tenure as head women’s basketball coach at Pennsylvania State University included 600 victories and repeated accusations that she discriminated against lesbian players, has resigned.

At a press conference Thursday, Tim Curley, Penn State's director of athletics, said Portland was not asked to step down. He declined to talk about a lawsuit filed against the coach by one of her former players. 

“Since this was Rene’s decision, I really can’t address too much how any one factor may have played into her decision," Curley said, according to a written transcript of the press conference.

Portland did not attend the event, and Curley said he didn't know of the coach's whereabouts. She said in a statement that her resignation was a "difficult decision."

Nearly a year ago, Penn State fined Portland $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 the former player, Jennifer Harris, who filed the suit.

Harris left the team in 2005 after she said Portland told her she would not be welcomed back. The suit, which was settled earlier this year, alleged that Portland discriminated against her on the basis of her race and her perceived lesbian sexual orientation, and that the coach asked her to look more feminine. The suit also named the university and Curley. The defendants continued to dispute Harris' claims and did not admit liability.

In a statement last year about Penn State's review of her conduct, Portland said 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.”

Portland faced allegations of anti-lesbian bias in the past and admitted years ago to not wanting lesbians on her team.

Karen Doering, senior counsel for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, an organization that filed the suit on Harris' behalf, said she didn't have knowledge of details surrounding Portland's resignation.

"We were confident that Penn State had agreed to changes we thought would protect future student-athletes," she said.

Helen Carroll, sports project director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and a former women's basketball coach, said the publicity of Portland's situation has provided a platform to discuss equality in college sports.

Heather Barber, a University of New Hampshire associate professor who is co-author of a journal article that dealt with lesbian female coaches in the NCAA, said she is surprised by Portland's decision.

"I hadn't seen movement in that direction," she said. "I'd like to think Penn State started to realize that it didn't want to run that kind of athletic program." (But she added that two consecutive mediocre seasons amid controversy could have also played a role.)

"Does it say that there is some pressure to try to change the climate? Absolutely," she said.

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, wrote in Outsports, a Web site about gay athletes, that “advocates for social justice in sport and women’s basketball fans everywhere are celebrating a huge victory ... Portland’s resignation coming so soon after the settlement announcement and just as the basketball season is winding down is the best news I could imagine to finally end this sad saga."


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