Thursday, March 22, 2007
Resignation should spark time of healing for PSU
By Mechelle Voepel Special to ESPN.com
Rene Portland has resigned as Penn State's head coach. It was certainly time -- for her, for the team, for Penn State, for the Big Ten and for women's basketball.
With Rene Portland's resignation comes the hope that the "bully coach" is on its way to extinction.
It has been a cataclysmic March for the sport, with several big-name schools needing to replace head coaches -- including the likes of Portland and Texas' Jody Conradt -- who had been in their respective positions longer than any current college player has been alive.
So the landscape -- in terms of who will be in charge where -- will look quite different next season. But what I also hope will be different is that tangible progress will have been made toward shifting mentalities in the women's college game.
The "bully coach," which Portland showed herself to be on too many occasions, needs to be on the way to extinction.
Coaches can dictate a lot about their players' lives, and some of that is necessary. But it is never a coach's place to comment on whether a player looks "feminine enough" -- or, for that matter, whether she's "too feminine." Let her be whoever she is.
Whom a player dates is not any coach's business -- unless there's intervention needed because the relationship is abusive or it's with someone who's inappropriate from an authority standpoint, such as a coach or professor. That latter issue has been brought to the forefront by the situation at LSU, another program with a head coaching position that is now open.
Ultimately, good coaches win their players' hearts without having to control their minds.
There are people who think Portland was a good coach -- a very good coach. Certainly, her Penn State record (606-236), her team's 2000 Final Four trip and her various "coach of the year" awards are evidence of that. But Portland's legacy will not be about her achievements on the basketball court. Furthermore, that's a fate she chose.
Over the last two years, especially, I've written several times about the Penn State situation. I don't want today to recap everything I've said, but the links are available here on the ESPN.com Web site.
Nor do I want to detail the entire history of Portland's 27 seasons at Penn State. Many women's basketball fans already know that, chapter and verse. The Women's Hoops Blog -- www.womenshoops.blogspot.com -- has done an excellent job of compiling that history and providing links to pertinent stories about Portland and Penn State.
I will try to -- as briefly as possible -- sum up the Portland situation: In newspaper articles in 1986 and 1991, Portland's policy of not wanting lesbian players on the team was made public. Following a Philadelphia Inquirer story in 1991, Penn State's faculty senate acted when much of the leadership of the school and the athletic department wouldn't. It voted to put sexual orientation into the anti-discrimination policy the school already had.
Portland had to go through a type of sensitivity training about homophobia. And in the 16 years since then, her only comments about this subject were that she followed the university's policy.
But many women's basketball fans believed she really didn't. The Penn State program became symbolic of homophobia to a lot of the sport's fan base. Whether that was fair or not, the one person who could have changed the perception -- Portland -- never did.
Things stewed but didn't reach a real boiling point for a long, long time. Then in 2005, Penn State was upset in the NCAA Tournament's first round by Liberty, and after the game, Portland told her players in the locker room that some of them would not be back for the next season.
One of those players was Jennifer Harris, who'd started much of that season and played in every game. By all accounts, she and Portland had a very strained relationship, and her departure might well have been in the best interests of both.
But the way Portland and Penn State handled this roster shakeup planted the seeds for what happened today. Harris, Lisa Etienne and Amber Bland were off the team, but no one at Penn State -- least of all Portland -- stepped forward and explained why or exactly what happened. For the next several months, it was mostly left to a beleaguered sports information director and a university spokesman (who at one point, via e-mail, told me that he'd never even met Portland) to "answer" media inquiries. Portland's communication with the media was through statements.
In October, Harris -- represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights -- filed a suit against Portland and the Penn State administration alleging she had been discriminated against because Portland thought she was gay (Harris said she wasn't) and because of race.
Whatever chance, however slim, that Portland was actually going to address this with the media in any way except through lawyer-controlled statements ended then.
Through the rest of 2005 and 2006, other former Penn State players stepped forward, some of them alleging that Portland had discriminated against them on the basis of sexual orientation, too. The most powerful story came from former player Cindy Davies, who said Portland forced her off the team in 1981 because she was a lesbian.
Then in April 2006, Penn State reprimanded Portland and fined her $10,000 after an internal investigation found Portland had created a "hostile, intimidating and offensive environment" for Harris based on what Portland perceived to be her sexual orientation. The investigation did not find evidence that Harris had been discriminated against because of race.
At this point, Portland again could have stepped forward and said something that acknowledged she might have been wrong in the way she treated Harris. Instead, she called the investigative process flawed, and essentially disrespected anyone in authority at Penn State.
Admittedly, since she was involved in the lawsuit with Harris at the time, everything she said or did was potentially going to be used "against" her in that. But maybe this was the time to settle that issue and try to establish that she really was committed to living up to the school's anti-discrimination policy and that she had made mistakes.
It probably came down to this, though: Portland never did -- and perhaps never will -- accept any blame. The lawsuit with Harris was settled -- with terms not disclosed -- this February. Although I fully understand most lawsuits are indeed settled rather than go to trial, I was disappointed with what seemed like another "nonresolution" of the issue.
I would say my sentiment Thursday is of relief -- because women's basketball did not need the Penn State cloud lingering over the sport any longer than it already has.
There will be people "celebrating" Portland's resignation. I understand that reaction, especially from those who felt personally wounded by her. But I also understand there are also people -- including former players -- who are very loyal to her and would testify that she has greatly helped them.
I've said all along -- as have many who follow women's basketball -- that Portland is very complex. She has long been active in her community, with charities. She was a player on the Immaculata teams of the 1970s that were pioneers for women's college basketball. There have been many times over the years when she talked common sense about women's sports opportunities in general. You can disagree completely with things Portland has done -- which I do -- but still not forget she's a human being who has left a program that was her life for three decades.
But Portland had the opportunity to change the perception of herself, and she did not do that. She decided the things she said to certain players, how she treated them and made them feel. She had all the power. She had choices to make, and she made them.
Some will vehemently defend her, and say she had a right to her beliefs. However, she worked for a public university that had an anti-discrimination policy under which she agreed to work. And there are no defensible "beliefs" that would not put the premium value on every young person's self-esteem.
Penn State is a terrific university in one of the most important and influential conferences in college sports. Further -- and it's not my Midwestern bias speaking -- the Big 12 and the Big Ten are critical to women's basketball, especially. They have been the top leagues in attendance for more than a decade.
The fan base and the infrastructure for women's hoops at Penn State are big assets to the game. This isn't about -- or shouldn't be about -- Penn State missing the NCAA Tournament the past two years. It's about Penn State defining itself. The rotting toothache that Penn State women's hoops had become can now, we all hope, start to heal.
When the school hires a new head coach, it would do well to remember the mistakes of the past as it makes that decision. This is not to say that someone such as Suzie McConnell Serio, one of Portland's former superstars who resigned this past summer from the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, can't be a candidate. I've had good experiences in all my dealings with her. But the university should seriously consider making a complete break from the Portland era.
One Division I coach whom I respect greatly told me several years ago that at the start of every season, she tells her players: "OK, look around. We're different races. We come from different parts of the country. We like different kinds of music. Some of our families are wealthy; some aren't. Some of us are gay; some are straight. Some are religious; some aren't. We don't have to agree on everything. But part of wearing this uniform means that we all accept and respect each other."
All coaches in every sport should say the same thing -- and live up to it themselves.
Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.