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Topics In the News
Joe Paterno's Role in the Rene Portland Scandal at Penn State
Posted by: Claude J. Summers on 11/11/11
Last updated on: 11/12/11
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Rene Portland. Photograph by Nathan A. Smith, courtesy trainingrules.com.

Legendary Penn State football coach Joe Paterno, recently fired for his role in covering up child-abuse by former Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, is also implicated in the scandal caused by former women's basketball coach Rene Portland's discrimination against lesbians.

According to Fawn Yacker, co-director with Dee Mosbacher of the award-winning documentary Training Rules (2009) about homophobia in Penn State's women's basketball program, Joe Paterno supported homophobic coach Rene Portland, whom he hired in the 1980s when he was the university's athletic director.

In a post at Outsports, Yacker states that Paterno "supported her even though she was open about her training rules--No drinking, No drugs, No lesbians. He supported her during student protests that were in response to the statements she made to the press in 1986 and 1991 stating her policies." He even referred to her as his "best hire."

Portland's homophobia was so notorious at Penn State that it finally became the center of a student-led campaign to force the university to adopt a non-discrimination policy, one that Paterno and then-President Joab Thomas opposed.

After several demonstrations against Portland and in favor of a non-discrimination policy, the faculty Senate finally acted and in effect forced a policy on the university in 1991.

At the time, Portland told an interviewer that she would reluctantly respect the new policy: "That is a policy I have to work under as an employee of the university. That's all I'll say about it."

However, as Training Rules documents, it is clear that Portland did not end her practice of discriminating against lesbians or those she perceived to be lesbian.

Training Rules tells the story of Jennifer Harris, whose suit against Penn State ultimately led to the resignation of Portland, an acclaimed and highly successful coach who made no secret of her homophobia.

In 2005, Harris, a premed sophomore, who had been one of the leading scorers on her team, was abruptly kicked off the squad by Portland. Harris suffered so many indignities as a result of this dismissal that she contemplated suicide.

But with the help of the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Harris decided to fight back in order to prevent other student athletes from suffering similar indignities. In 2006, she launched a lawsuit against Portland, athletic director Tim Curley, and Penn State, alleging discrimination on the basis of perceived sexual orientation, racism, and gender stereotyping.

With the announcement of the suit, other women athletes came forward to tell their stories of having been victimized through the years by Portland and the athletic programs at Penn State.

An internal university review of Harris's complaint found that Portland created a "hostile, intimidating, and offensive environment." Portland was fined $10,000, required to attend diversity training sessions, and placed on "zero tolerance" for future violations of Penn State's non-discrimination policy.

Penn State settled the suit under confidential terms and Portland subsequently resigned. Upon her resignation, Paterno said, "I think she's done a great job."

As Mosbacher has written, "Training Rules is a painful reminder that homophobia still exists in women's sports. The Penn State players featured in the film represent many others throughout the world of college athletics whose careers have been terminated because of homophobia."

Training Rules (trailer for the documentary) from Woman Vision on Vimeo.

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