Commentary

PSU again deficient in leadership

In its dealings with Rene Portland, administration also failed to be proactive, vigilant

Originally Published: November 11, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

You already have heard and will continue to hear a lot about the dismal situation at Penn State. It's spotlighting an apparent breakdown in responsibility and leadership at all levels in regard to alleged crimes of child sex abuse by former football assistant coach Jerry Sandusky.

Since the news broke Saturday about the arrest of Sandusky and indictments against Penn State athletic director Tim Curley and senior vice president Gary Schultz for perjury and failure to properly report abuse, we've seen an understandably growing wave of contempt and disgust for those involved -- even from passionate alumni who love Penn State.

Now football coach Joe Paterno and university president Graham Spanier are out of their jobs, with more upheaval surely on the way. People are asking about the dearth of leadership in State College, and how it could have come to this.

For those who follow women's college basketball, though, it brings up memories of how the school's administration handled the long tenure of coach Rene Portland and the lawsuit that essentially ended her career.

I don't want to pile on Penn State, knowing the majority of people there and the alums are totally aghast at the current disaster. Nor do I want to equate what happened with the women's basketball program under Portland to what apparently happened with the football program. As reprehensible as many found the things that Portland did and said in regard to lesbian (or perceived lesbian) student-athletes, what Sandusky is alleged to have done is in its own isolated dungeon of horrific crime.

Rene Portland
AP Photo/Pat LittleRene Portland won 606 games at Penn State, but her legacy is dotted by discrimination allegations.

But the situations are linked in this way: The leadership at Penn State was lacking, and many of the same key people -- such as Curley and Spanier -- were involved. I wrote several columns for ESPN.com in 2005-07, when a discrimination lawsuit brought by former Penn State basketball player Jennifer Harris against Portland and Curley put a spotlight on the coach's perceived attitude toward players who were lesbian or who did not dress/act in what Portland considered an appropriately heterosexual way.

Again and again in those columns, I kept referring to the leadership void in the Penn State athletic department. During that time, in fact, Penn State communicated to the media a lot through an official spokesman who told me that -- despite being on the front line of protecting the reputation of the school and the coach -- he had never even met Portland.

Thus, it was no surprise that he repeatedly gave statements that made it painfully obvious he was largely unfamiliar with her career or any prior controversies in which she'd been involved. He was unaware that when the university's faculty senate had added a sexual-orientation clause to its anti-discrimination policy in 1991, it was in response to a story printed 11 days earlier in The Philadelphia Inquirer that quoted former Penn State players who alleged Portland discriminated against lesbians in recruiting.

To me, the almost casual way Penn State handled its defense and support of Portland throughout her career signaled that the school didn't take any allegations against her very seriously. What I wrote in October 2006 reflected the frustration many outside observers had about the school's attitude regarding complaints about Portland: It took a quarter-century of people not speaking out, or looking the other way, or rationalizing that led to Portland having complete belief in her dictatorial power.

Obviously, we've seen many examples of college "leadership" turning a blind eye to athletic department malfeasance and acting only after being embarrassed and exposed publicly. So this isn't just about Penn State but the overall problem of power being out of balance at universities across the country.

However, in the case of Penn State, what happened with Portland went on for several years. During that time, many who followed women's basketball considered Penn State a toxic part of the sport because of Portland and the administration that backed her.

Hired in 1980, forced to resign in 2007

In 1980, Portland was hired as Penn State's women's basketball coach by Paterno during the brief time he was also the school's athletic director. In newspaper articles in 1986 and 1991, Portland's policy of not wanting lesbian players on the team was made public. As mentioned, in '91, the school's faculty senate reacted by adding sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination policy the school already had.

Portland went through what was called "sensitivity training" about homophobia and subsequently refused to address the issue, save for saying she followed the school's policy. Years went by.

Penn State made it to the 2000 Women's Final Four. Portland was named the WBCA Coach of the Year in 2004. But in 2005, Penn State was upset in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Liberty. Portland dismissed three players -- Jennifer Harris, Lisa Etienne and Amber Bland -- right after that game.

However, Penn State didn't confirm that the players had been kicked off the team. Initially, Portland didn't acknowledge that. She didn't say anything at all. It was left to the Penn State sports information department to put out a series of absurd releases that tried to suggest all three players had left of their own accord.

The situation continued to curdle in the spring and summer of 2005, and it would result in Harris filing a lawsuit against Portland and Curley that autumn. Then, Portland issued a statement that excoriated Harris for her substandard attitude and poor performance -- but did not address the fact that Harris had played in every game the previous season, averaging 25.8 minutes and 10.4 points. There was no explanation as to why -- if she had been so unable to meet Penn State's standards -- Harris had still played so much that entire season.

Because of the legal action, the school's leaders finally had to address Harris' dismissal, saying they would conduct their own investigation. They did, and in April 2006, Spanier said that "enough evidence existed to substantiate a claim that Portland discriminated against Harris by creating a hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment" because of Harris' perceived sexual orientation. Penn State fined Portland $10,000.

Portland's response to that was to call the investigative process flawed and balk at paying the fine. In the end, that finally was her undoing: She was publicly insubordinate to her bosses.

That turned the administrative tide against Portland -- even if concerns about potential damage to the psyches of the lesbian student-athletes she'd encountered had not. Those athletes included former player Cindy Davies, who came forward to say she'd battled suicidal depression since Portland had forced her off the team in 1982 for being gay.

The Harris lawsuit was settled out of court in February 2007, with neither Portland nor Curley acknowledging any liability in regard to Harris' allegations. Harris, who had been represented by the National Center for Lesbian Rights, got a settlement. Her playing career fizzled out while she was at James Madison University, playing in just one game for the Dukes in 2006-07 before leaving that program.

Portland's coaching career ended a month later, in March 2007, when she was essentially forced to resign. Many in the women's basketball world were everything from relieved to overjoyed. There was no outpouring of support for her, no fond reminiscing by colleagues about the success -- including a record of 606-236 at Penn State -- she'd had in her career.

Failing to follow the policy

The truth is, though, that there were -- and still are -- people who supported everything Portland did at Penn State. I got plenty of email from them whenever I wrote about her, and I likely will again.

Some of her supporters wrote to say that she had a perfect right to run her program with a "no lesbians allowed" mentality -- even though her university had a non-discrimination policy that included sexual orientation, and Portland claimed to follow that policy.

Rene Portland
Sandra Dukes/WireImage.comRene Portland is almost persona non grata in the women's basketball world now.

They said that I was guilty of character assassination on Portland, that everything written about her was part of a "radical gay agenda."

Other Penn State fans conceded that Portland might have made mistakes, but she really wasn't as intolerant as the media portrayed her. Some claimed that Portland was "OK" with lesbians, but just didn't want them dating each other on her team. Others said she was fine with lesbians as long as they didn't look too much like lesbians. Yes, it was that ridiculous.

I also received hundreds of emails -- from former players, gay and straight, and Penn State fans -- who were long-since weary and embarrassed of the shadow of homophobia on the program.

But Portland herself didn't talk to the media about this topic after 1991, other than in statements, such as this to the Harrisburg Patriot-News in 2006: "Contrary to some media reports, the sexual orientation or race of any player or person is irrelevant to me. As coach of the Penn State Lady Lions, I support the university's policy of non-discrimination and have supported that policy since it was adopted in 1991."

What she failed to mention, of course, was that policy had been adopted in response to her and the comments by players -- some of them actually thinking they were portraying her positively -- that filled in the picture of her attitude toward lesbians.

"She does make it known when she's recruiting that she doesn't put up with homosexuality," former Penn State player Suzie McConnell had told reporter Jere Longman, then with The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Another former player, Patti Longenecker, had said, "She tells you, flat-out, 'I don't have any appreciation for the homosexual lifestyle. I won't have that on my team.'"

The fact that Portland never offered any statement that she had, in fact, totally changed her outlook on the subject made people skeptical of her insistence that she had subsequently adhered dutifully to the anti-discrimination policy. Ultimately, she did little to counter that skepticism, and her own university's investigation suggested she hadn't stayed true to the policy after all, at least in regard to Harris.

Penn State again demonstrates deficiency in leadership

I know there are those who'll say Portland and her family did a lot for the school. They'll give testimonials to her generosity and to personally having had great interaction with her. Some of her former players will praise her. And they'll be infuriated that, especially at this awful time for the school, I'm bringing up Portland again. They'll feel Penn State has been through enough gut-wrenching bad publicity, and that the situations do not have anything at all to do with each other.

But as I said, the link is the deficiency in leadership that wasn't as proactive as it could have been in dealing with difficult issues. I don't think that Penn State's administrators did Portland any favors by not having more direct dialogue with her earlier in her tenure, especially when you look at how her career ended. She's almost persona non grata in the women's basketball world now.

Unfortunately, many universities -- if they're being honest -- need to look at themselves and say, "Do we do all we can to ensure that everyone's compass is directed toward doing what's right, even if that might initially cause some bad publicity for the university or mean sparring with a powerful coach? Do we look out for the powerless? Is our moral code as strong as it needs to be? Where are our true priorities? Who are we most concerned about protecting?"

Those can seem like pie-in-the-sky ideals, and maybe they are. Certainly, they're much easier to commit to in theory than in practice. But if there are lessons to be gained from what's occurred at Penn State, the most important need to be learned by those in the most powerful positions at schools and their athletic departments.

Penn State's women's basketball team, under coach Coquese Washington, made it to the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 2005, which was the beginning of the unraveling for Portland. Penn State's volleyball team has won the past four NCAA titles and will contend again this season. The Nittany Lions' wrestling team is the defending NCAA champion, too.

They and all the other student-athletes at Penn State are sure to be reeling with the events of the past week. To them -- and to most people, frankly -- the things that happened in the Portland era with women's basketball are already in the dim past, and maybe don't seem that relevant.

But, again, it speaks to the fact that the vigilance to make sure everyone is doing the right thing by young people isn't something a university and athletic department should leave up to an "every once in a while" maintenance check. It needs constant care.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.