|ESPN.com: Commentary||[Print without images]|
There are times when breathless moralizing reveals more about the people doing the moralizing than about the people at whom they're pointing their accusatory fingers. At the moment, a former Penn State coach comes to mind. But it's not Jerry Sandusky, the longtime football defensive coordinator now charged with 40 counts of child sexual abuse.
Rene Portland was the women's basketball coach at Penn State for 27 years, from 1980 to 2007, and during her tenure she defined winning on the court, guiding the Lady Lions to 21 NCAA tournaments, a Final Four and more than 600 victories. She also earned two national coach of the year awards.
But Portland cemented her legacy off the court, with her unbending efforts to expel lesbians, or anyone who associated with them, from her team.
Portland couldn't stand lesbians, and she made no bones about it. In 1986, she explained to the Chicago Sun-Times how she reassured recruits and their parents of her anti-gay convictions: "I will not have it in my program." Even after Penn State added sexual orientation to its non-discrimination policy in the early 1990s, it was no secret to anyone who played for Portland that being openly gay on her team was out of the question.
It wasn't until 2005 that someone forced Portland's hand -- someone outside that Penn State chain of command we've been hearing so much about over the past week. Former PSU player Jennifer Harris filed a lawsuit accusing Portland of making her life miserable and throwing her off the team because the coach suspected she was gay. The suit was settled in 2007, and Portland resigned that same year. But she never apologized for her discrimination. In fact, her coda would eventually serve as the subtitle of the 2009 indie documentary "Training Rules": No drinking. No drugs. No lesbians.
Sadly, if the grand jury's accusations against Sandusky are true, we now know that while Portland was preoccupied with chasing phantoms, Penn State officials were turning a blind eye toward a real monster in their midst, a man who was molesting boys under his care. And while Portland's raging homophobia was often treated as an anomaly, something unique to women's basketball, something small-time and not really worthy of attention, her case turned out to be a warning that something was rotten in Happy Valley.
That rot has now completely undermined Penn State's powerful sports empire. Athletic director Tim Curley (currently on leave) and vice president Gary Schultz (who has resigned) are both charged with perjury and covering up allegations of sexual abuse; university president Graham Spanier was fired amid the growing public outcry. Not even Joe Paterno, the iconic architect of that empire, was spared.
Meanwhile, when we examine the Portland era and the Sandusky scandal through the same lens, what we see tells us a lot about institutionalized hate and systems that equate winning with morality, both of which flourished for decades in State College. The administration's failure to step in and do the right thing, the moral thing, created a void in which dozens of young lives, from Portland's players to Sandusky's alleged victims, were disrupted and forever scarred.
Long after Sandusky was first suspected of harming young boys, according to the grand jury's findings, he was still being lauded for his charity work -- and allegedly abusing more boys. That nobody at Penn State did much of anything about it isn't as surprising as you might think. After all, long after the school said it wasn't OK to discriminate against gays, Portland kept right on hounding out players she perceived to be gay -- and still kept her job.
When Portland finally called it quits in the wake of an activist outcry, Curley told the media that the coach wasn't forced to resign. That's right. The same AD, Curley, and the same president, Spanier, who are accused of mishandling the Sandusky mess also refused to oust Portland after almost three decades of her hateful nonsense. To be fair, Curley and Spanier inherited Portland from a former PSU athletic director who hired her in 1980, a man named Joe Paterno.
So, at the risk of crossing the line into breathless moralizing, let's state the following: If the charges laid out against Jerry Sandusky come anywhere near the truth, then what transpired at Penn State was not only criminal, but also cynical, hypocritical and cruel. And it reflects an institutional ethos that echoed through Rene Portland's tenure, too, one that placed a higher value on winning and keeping up appearances than on protecting the athletes and children entitled to feel safe under the university's watch.
The same factors that brought Penn State to this low point in its history -- arrogance, neglect, cowardice -- were there all along. We just needed to look at the women's basketball program, and the people in charge of it.
Luke Cyphers is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine and ESPN Insider.