SBJ/January 9 - 15, 2006/Other News

Penn State women’s basketball lawsuit centers on sexuality

For all the excitement generated by a resurgent Penn State football team this season, the Penn State women’s basketball program has been making its own news of late. It’s the kind of news that a university with a proud sports tradition would gladly do without.

Last month, Jennifer Harris, a former starter on the Lady Lions’ basketball team, sued Penn State as well as the university’s women’s basketball coach, Rene Portland, and Penn State athletic director Tim Curley in federal court.

Harris, who was kicked off the basketball team by Portland last spring, alleges that during her two school years at Penn State she was hounded by the coach over whether she was a lesbian.

In the complaint, filed Dec. 21 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, Harris makes numerous claims about what the coach did to learn more about her sexual orientation and ultimately how she was forced from the team because the coach believed she was a lesbian. (Harris has since transferred to James Madison University.)

“Coach Portland is not unique,” said Shannon Minter, legal director for the National Center for Lesbian Rights and one of Harris’ attorneys. “There are other coaches with similar attitudes. But she stands out because she is so open about her gay biases.”

The lawsuit, which asserts 20 federal and state claims, alleges sex, race and gender discrimination, breach of contract in withdrawing Harris’s athletic scholarship and defamation for comments that Portland made publicly about Harris after she left the team.

The core of Harris’ lawsuit is her contention that Portland became obsessed with her sexual orientation, and that the coach launched a campaign to remove her from the team once she became convinced that the player is a lesbian. (Harris is not gay, according to Minter.)

Among Harris’ claims in the lawsuit:

During her freshman season, Portland called Harris and a teammate into a meeting and “demanded to know whether they were dating each other.” The players denied it.

In December 2004, the start of Harris’ sophomore season, Portland told the player that she should dress in more “feminine” clothes. When Harris resisted, Portland accused the player of “personally disrespecting her by not changing her image.”

During the 2004-05 season, Portland “repeatedly questioned [Harris’] teammates and others about Jennifer’s sexual orientation, asking them whom Jennifer was dating, whether girls stayed over at her apartment, and whether they had seen her kissing girls.”

In February, the lawsuit states, Portland demoted Harris from her starting position. Afterward, Portland pressured Harris to take a leave of absence from the team. When Harris asked why, Portland allegedly said that Harris had disrespected her for not adopting a more feminine image.

School spokesman Tysen Kendig offered responded to the lawsuit late last month in a campus newspaper, saying, “They are allegations at this point. I think it’s important to keep that in mind.”

During her 26 years at Penn State, Portland has been drawn into controversy about sexual orientation before. In 1986, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that Portland didn’t want lesbians on her team.

The university established a policy prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation in December 1991, according to the lawsuit.

When Harris went public with her claims, the university launched an internal investigation to see if the anti-discrimination policy had been violated. The investigation continues, Mahon said.

As for Portland, Mahon noted, “The coach says she has not violated our policy and that she supports it.”

Mark Hyman (mhyman@sportsbusiness-journal.com) is a lawyer and writer.

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