John Smallwood | Portland case revives unease over lesbians in sports

Posted: March 23, 2007

MAYBE AFTER two consecutive losing seasons, Rene Portland and Penn State University mutually decided it was time for a fresh start. Perhaps Portland's resignation yesterday as women's basketball coach after 27 seasons is solely related to the fact that the Lions have been on a slow fall from their prior position of national prominence.

But while no one says her views against homosexuality were a factor in her departure, that will be part of her legacy.

As recently as 2004, Penn State finished the season ranked fifth in the nation. Under Portland's stewardship, the Lady Lions were discussed with the same reverence given to Tennessee, Connecticut, Georgia and Louisiana Tech.

But for as much positive attention Portland brought to Penn State on the court, she brought almost an equal amount of negative attention because of her views against homosexuality.

As far back as 1986, she was quoted as saying she did not allow lesbians to play for her. Former players and associates subsequently said she did not tolerate homosexuality.

Just last month, Portland reached an out-of-court settlement with former player Jen Harris, who sued her and Penn State after claiming she basically was run off the team because Portland erroneously believed she was gay.

Portland was reprimanded by Penn State, fined, ordered to take diversity classes and threatened with dismissal for any future violations of the school's discrimination policy.

Portland is the second high-

profile women's coach in a month to leave her position amid talk involving homosexuality.

Just before the start of the women's NCAA Tournament, Louisiana State coach Dana "Pokey" Chatman resigned amid allegations that she had "inappropriate conduct" with players in the past. But let's not forget that the real issue involves the unequal relationship between coach and subordinate.

Issues like this rarely come up in men's sports, because homosexuality is still the ultimate taboo. Even though logic dictates that a certain number of gay men compete and coach at high levels in sports, we don't, won't or can't allow ourselves to talk about it.

We're more comfortable treating homosexuality as if it doesn't exist among male athletes.

It's the opposite in women's sports. We've become almost too comfortable with the stereotype of lesbians in women's sports.

While we have grown past the stage where we looked at every woman athlete with a strange eye, too many people still believe lesbianism is a prerequisite in women's sports.

Journeyman John Amaechi, who, ironically, played college ball at Penn State, had a cup of coffee in the NBA. But on the eve of a book deal, he announced he was gay and received seven times his allotted 15 minutes of fame.

Meanwhile, Sheryl Swoopes, one of the greatest female basketball players ever, revealed she was gay, and people's reaction was, "What's new?"

That dichotomy is interesting.

To some degree, nearly every woman who participates in sports is still subject to speculation about whether she is gay.

Even though relatively few female athletes have acknowledged that they are gay, too much of society thinks that homosexuality is a prevalent part of women's sports.

Unwillingness to accept gay female athletes leads too many people down the path of Neanderthal thinking and marginalizes women's sports.

In my travels, I still hear plenty of homophobic comments about the women's NCAA Tournament, the WNBA and women's sports as a whole. I've had many a debate about why that's inappropriate.

Some knuckleheads still would rather speculate whether a great female athlete is gay than simply appreciate her as a great athlete.

The issue of lesbianism should not cloud the real story. Athletes are athletes.

If the allegations about her are true, Portland was wrong because she discriminated, period, not solely because she discriminated against lesbians.

If allegations against Chatman are true, she was wrong because she had inappropriate conduct with players, not because those involved were female. *

Send e-mail to

smallwj@phillynews.com.

For recent columns, go to

http://go.philly.com/smallwood.

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