Tuesday, February 6, 2007
Penn State settlement leaves unsettling feeling
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
In seeing the "resolution" of the case of Jennifer Harris (and her exploiters) vs. Rene Portland (and her enablers), I was reminded of what my mom always says when a movie or television show has a conclusion that's not to her satisfaction.
Rene Portland won her 600th game earlier this season.
"That's it?!" she'll exclaim. "That's the end?! What a bunch of crap!"
That's probably the initial reaction of many people who've been following this particular saga for almost two years and the overall Portland story at Penn State for much longer than that.
In March 2005, Harris and two teammates were given their walking papers by Portland after the team had been upset by Liberty in the NCAA Tournament. Of course, it wasn't acknowledged that way initially by Penn State; there was a period of farcical misdirection suggesting the three were leaving voluntarily.
That set the standard for how forthright Portland and the university's various media-relations mouthpieces would be from then on. Not that this is unique to Penn State. Once controversy hits any athletic department, the wagons are usually circled and even people who can't stand each other start swilling the same Kool-Aid.
Harris didn't disappear as Portland surely hoped she would; rather, she filed a discrimination lawsuit later in 2005 that included Penn State and athletic director Tim Curley. Among her allegations, Harris claimed she had been mistreated by Portland both for the perception that she was gay and because of her race.
Subsequently, the people who were paying any attention to this situation -- which didn't include a lot of the national media -- discussed many issues. Including Portland's past on the topic of players' sexuality and Harris' behavior and attitude as a Penn State player.
A lot of observers wanted this case to go to trial this spring. To see who would testify and hear what they would say. To have a public hashing out of the toxic Harris-Portland relationship during their two seasons of not actually relating. To get various views of what the atmosphere is "really" like in the Penn State women's basketball program.
But that's not going to happen. In many ways, it's not all that surprising. Most cases do end in settlements rather than at trial. Just as well, usually. If they didn't, as a lawyer buddy of mine put it, our legal system would be even more of a logjammed disaster than it already is.
However, since this case was supposed to be about making a strong statement in regard to how lesbians are treated in women's collegiate sports, the thought was that Harris' representation, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, would go the distance. And since Portland symbolically thumbed her nose at her own university's sanctions against her (including a $10,000 fine) in April 2006 after an internal investigation, many probably assumed she might not "settle" for anything.
But settle was, indeed, what everyone did. On Monday, the NCLR announced an "amicable" settlement had been reached, the terms of which are confidential.
In a nauseating press release that displayed the abject phoniness expected when lawyers and spin-control public relations mix, the NCLR said it was "pleased" to make the announcement. Penn State, Curley and Portland denied any liability in regard to Harris' allegations that she was discriminated against while playing for the school. Harris agreed to withdraw legal action.
Then there were long paragraphs about Harris' basketball career, Portland's success as a coach and being a "tireless advocate and major spokesperson for equality in women's sports under Title IX," plus more piled-on malarkey about Penn State being a "national leader" in its "commitment to create and maintain an academic and work environment that fosters respect for others and is free of discrimination of any kind."
Good grief somebody get me a vomit trough just in case I can't keep my gag reflex in check.
We all know there is nothing amicable about any of this. Harris has her flaws as a witness, and she might have decided and/or been advised that going to trial was not necessarily in her best interest.
Similarly, Portland is no prize witness herself. And universities don't want to go to trial on anything if it can be avoided without costing too much.
Will we ever find out the actual terms of this settlement? Not likely, unless a leak springs. Thus, it's only speculation about who blinked first, or whether both sides were blinking at the same time. Not to mention how much cash might have changed hands.
What's the fallout? Well, if Harris' goal was to get some vindication, it's fair to say she did that. But does she still have detractors? Obviously.
It's not entirely fair for me to call her NCLR representatives "exploiters." Yet there always did seem to be something bleakly comical about a lesbian-rights group having a so-called poster child who said she wasn't actually a lesbian.
But because of the public interest the lawsuit did stir up, voices from the past -- most poignantly and powerfully ex-player Cindy Davies, who said Portland forced her off the team in 1982 because she was gay -- were heard. And Portland's quotes from now-infamous 1986 and 1991 newspaper stories were reprinted many times.
Certainly, Portland's defenders point out that was all a long time ago. Yet Portland has had ample opportunity in the years since to at least consider publicly addressing -- if not redefining -- the image she has been reduced to in many eyes: that of a homophobic caricature and a bully. But she didn't do that.
As for me referring to Curley and other Penn State officials as "enablers" of Portland, let's just say they didn't try to find out anything they really didn't want to know -- until they were in a crisis. No one at Penn State was genuinely proactive about adhering to the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Are there lessons for women's basketball, in general, from all of this? I've said this before, but I'll say it again.
Players and their parents should realize that as long as everything is going well, an athletic department is a big, happy family. But if things go wrong, that "family" stuff is all over. The university almost always will close ranks and support its coach. Don't expect any school employees to stick their necks out for a player. Even if they want to, they won't -- out of fear for their jobs and futures.
Here's another lesson: Coaches should embrace having the larger burden of responsibility in resolving problems with players. It's called being an adult. Even with the biggest pain-in-the-neck players -- yes, I know they and their equally pesky parents do exist -- the player is still a kid. The coach isn't.
By the same token, though, every "kid" -- no matter her age -- deserves respect as a human being. If you treat her as if she's disposable, that's how she'll feel and act.
And just as babies aren't delivered by storks, players don't just show up in basketball programs. A coach recruits them. If you bring them in, then you deal with them as developing and sometimes very complicated individuals. And if a coach before you brought them in well, that's what you inherited.
Ultimately, I'd guess Portland will coach at Penn State as long as she wants. Because in the Penn State community, she's regarded more for her coaching accomplishments and contributions to the school than for her reputation as having issues with lesbian players. However, to many in the overall women's basketball community, it's just the opposite. Unless she does something to change it, her legacy is already set.
As for Harris, who transferred to James Madison, she had ankle surgery last month and might not play again this season. Will she play again? And what of her life beyond basketball? Who knows? Whatever your opinion of Harris, I doubt you'd disagree she has been through a lot and still has much to face.
So from a legal standpoint, the case is closed. In reality, though, very little seems to have been resolved.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at email@example.com.