Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Review of "Training Rules" Documentary

From True/Slant on October 27, 2009

‘Training Rules’ an Examination of the ‘No Lesbians’ Policy at Penn State.

I had the good fortune to catch Dee Mosbacher’s documentary, “Training Rules” about former Penn State University women’s basketball coach Rene Portland. Portland, a successful coach in wins and losses, also had a personal obsession to ferret out and eradicate lesbians from her program. “Training Rules” takes a look at the Portland regime and, in particular, the lawsuit filed by former player, Jennifer Harris, who was booted off the team in 2004. But to understand Portland’s reign of terror, you have to go back decades, before Jennifer Harris ever picked up a basketball.

In the early 1980’s Rene Portland was a talented young coach and Cindy Davies was a talented young hoopster. Davies was also struggling with her sexuality. She says that coach Portland threatened to out her to her parents and to the media, as well as kicking her off the team. Davies left Penn State quietly. It’s hard to know if anybody outside of that locker room knew what Portland was up to when Davies left, but a few years later, the coach went public with her feelings, telling the Chicago Sun-Times, “I will not have it [lesbianism] on my team,” in 1986.

Try substituting “black” or “Asian” or “Jewish” for “lesbians.” Roll those sentences around on your tongue and see how that feels: I will not have blacks on my team. I will not have Asians on my team. I will not have Jews on my team. Just how long would it have taken Penn State, or any university, to fire a coach who adopted that kind of practice and had the temerity to say it for publication in a major newspaper? One hour? Less time than that? And yet, Penn State did nothing. What could the Athletic Department have been thinking?

Penn State never fired Portland, even though references to her policies again surfaced in a 1991 Philadelphia Inquirer article, despite the fact that the University had added gays and lesbians to it’s non-discrimination policy that very same year. Season followed season, players came and went, Portland received coaching awards, won her conference multiple times and took her team to the NCAA tournament most years. All the while, continuing her spiteful crusade.

Until one courageous young woman, one with a family strong enough to back her, said enough and took legal action against Portland in 2005. That’s right, it was going on still in 2005. Still Penn State turned a blind eye to Portland’s draconian policies. In 2007, the Harris case settled out of court. Portland finally resigned in May of 2007.

Around the time that Harris filed her lawsuit in 2005, I sat down for a long chat with two women who had played at Penn State in the mid-1980’s. They indicated there were lots of rules on Portland’s teams: No lesbians allowed. Inter-racial dating was verboten. And while she didn’t discriminate against black players, it was understood that she wanted her players to look a certain way – i.e. they couldn’t be too black, wear cornrows, adopt hip hop styles and the like. It took it’s toll on all the players, gay and straight, black and white. One player remembered a year when the team lost in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament; Portland was irate, but the players were secretly relieved the season was over.

One of those former players spoke to me only on the condition of anonymity. She was still traumatized, still hurt, still ashamed in 2005. I never forgot how emotionally delicate she seemed even after 20 years. It was so satisfying to see that same former player, Lisa Faloon, break her silence in the film and speak freely about how difficult that time was for her and how she finally overcame it.

At the time I met Faloon, I was so outraged by Portland’s Stasi-like tactics and disgusted by the indifference of the University and Joe Paterno (if anybody could have stopped Portland, it was Joe Paterno; I’m not exaggerating when I say that at State College, Pennsylvania, Joe Paterno is god and if he demanded that the university dig up Nittany Mountain and move it one mile south, it would be done before the end of the football season), that I forgot the most important part of the story: that these were kids, really. They were kids who had their trust broken and their dreams taken.

I had also overlooked the most amazing part of the story, which is Jennifer Harris, herself. Jen Harris should be feted from coast to coast, for having the courage at the tender age of 19 or 20, to take on legendary coach Rene Portland, Joe Pa and the inexhaustible legal firepower of the Penn State Athletic Department.

Part of the settlement was a confidentiality agreement, but I so wish that Jennifer Harris were permitted to speak about it, because I’d love to ask her where she found the strength to do it. I want to know how she got through the toughest, darkest times and kept battling. I know her basketball career didn’t work out the way she hoped it would (though she resumed playing basketball for James Madison, according to the film, she suffered a career ending ankle injury), but I’d like to ask her if it is of any small comfort to know that tactics like Portland’s won’t be tolerated, that no other young women will suffer the way that she did, the way that Lisa Faloon and Cindy Davies did. I love basketball, but I love justice even more and to me, Jen Harris is a hero.

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