Sunday, April 5, 2009

Training Rules: A Powerful Examination of the “No Lesbian” Era of Penn State Women’s Basketball

Saturday night I attended the premiere of Training Rules, the Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker documentary about the Rene Portland “no lesbian” era of Penn State women’s basketball. The film premiered at the Philadelphia Film Festival to a full house who gave Dee and Fawn an enthusiastic standing ovation before the film began and repeated this honor again after the 61 minute film ended.

All of the principals who appeared in the documentary were present for the premiere except one of the courageous athletes targeted by Portland’s 25 year assault on all things she perceived as lesbian. The former Penn State basketball players who spoke out in the film included Cindy Davies, Lisa Faloon, Chris and Corinne Gulas, Courtney Wicks and Jennifer Harris. Jennifer Harris, the athlete who filed the 2005 lawsuit against Penn State and Portland and Jen’s mother and father were featured in the film as was Portland’s assistant coach in the early 80’s, Liz McGovern. Sue Rankin, the former Penn State softball coach who has tirelessly fought homophobia at Penn State for over 30 years, was included in the documentary. Adding commentary and context were Helen Carroll, NCLR Sports Project Director and former NCLR attorney, Karen Doering, who was one of the attorneys who represented Jennifer Harris. It was my honor to also be included in the documentary as a “talking head.”

Hugs and introductions were exchanged as we all waited in the VIP line to enter the theatre. The sense of anticipation and pride I think we all felt about the roles we had each played in the making of this fine documentary was palpable. I felt like we were a band of sisters who shared a common purpose in seeing justice done by getting this shameful story of cruelty, abuse of power, irrational fixation on lesbians and blatant discrimination out in public so that no athlete ever again has to suffer the way the courageous women featured in the film did.

The documentary is extremely well done. Dee and Fawn have created a riveting story line weaving interviews, action shots and information into a compelling narrative that shocked the few audience members who did not know about this regrettable era in Penn State Athletics. The film is an amazing educational tool that will spark discussion and self-reflection for everyone connected to women’s athletics whether they are athletes, coaches, administrators, parents or fans.

The core of the documentary is the experience of the former basketball players who speak out. Jen Harris bravely stepped forward and initiated the final fall of Rene Portland, who resigned shortly after the lawsuit was settled in 2007. Muzzled by the terms of confidentiality imposed by the lawsuit’s settlement, Jen Harris was unable to speak to us at the premiere, but her lead role in the documentary and in the lawsuit was acknowledged with another standing ovation from the audience as she stood shyly before us after the film ended. Jen and her parents, with the able and committed resources of the NCLR took on Penn State and Portland in a bitter legal battle that lasted over two years. Harris’s claims alone might have been dismissed as the complaints of the disgruntled troublemaker that Portland claimed she was, but the willingness of the other five former PSU basketball players and one former assistant coach to step forward in support of Harris’s claims make it impossible to ignore the truth that comes through in their collective accounts of each one being targeted by Portland’s lesbian purges. That their experiences spanned the entirety of Portland’s 25 year career at Penn State, from the Gulas twins in 1980 to Jen Harris in 2005 is a stunning monument to institutional indifference or complicity. I don’t know which is worse. Maybe it was a little of both.

Hearing these women recount what Portland said and did to them is wrenching. Portland was a bully and carelessly destroyed dreams and tried to crush spirits with intimidation and threats. And she did it over and over anytime her twisted “gaydar” twanged. I was left wondering how many other former Penn State basketball players were similarly bullied, but did not have the courage to speak up. I wondered how many others there are who have not recovered from their Penn State experience and cannot tell their stories.

My final impression is, after seeing the documentary and then talking with each of the former players after the film, that far from crushing their spirits, these women are amazingly strong and resilient. These women are survivors who, despite the fear and intimidation they endured, refused to allow Portland to steal their spirits or make them feel shame or doubt about who they choose to love. They each stepped forward when asked, with the common purpose of shining a light on perhaps their darkest and lowest moments so that younger generations of athletes will not have to endure what they did. All of these women are sheroes and I thank Dee and Fawn for giving them the opportunity to close a difficult chapter in each of their lives.

Portland was a successful coach for many years, by the standard of wins and losses. Her teams were in the top 20 and made two trips to the Final Four. She never won the big games though. They always fell just short. The former players in the documentary talked about the fear and stress that all women on the team learned to live with as they protected themselves as best they could from their coach’s judgmental and prying eye. After the film, they spoke about the numbers of players they knew who left the team over the years, unwilling or unable to tolerate Portland’s rampages. Is it any wonder then that Penn State could never win the big ones? Basketball is a game of trust and teamwork. How could they, playing under clouds of suspicion and fear, bring their best basketball to the stressful final three minutes of a close game?

The documentary also calls attention to the entire women’s collegiate basketball coaches’ community. They knew about Portland’s “training rules” yet their silence about Portland’s rule was complete. To the contrary she was honored twice by the WBCA as Coach of the Year. How are we to understand this reaction? We can only hope that the bravery of Jen Harris and the other former players featured in Training Rules encourages coaches to reflect on the cost of their silence to young women’s lives and moves them to choose a different response in the future to prevent the egregious abuse of power tolerated at Penn State from ever happening again.

The good news is that in the wake of Portland’s resignation, change is afoot at Penn State. The athletic department has taken several steps to educate staff and student-athletes about the necessity to respect the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual athletes and coaches. The new women’s coach, Coquese Washington, shows an active interest in making sure that everyone on her teams are treated with respect and is quietly rebuilding a team left in shambles after the public controversy at the end of Portland era.

Dee tells me that Training Rules will be in distribution in October. In the meantime it will be screened at film festivals around the country. Go to the Training Rules web site for information about where you can to see it. If you care about women’s sports, if you care about social justice in women’s sports, you need to see Training Rules. If you don’t understand why people like me keep harping about LGBT issues in sport, if you think the days of discrimination against lesbians in sport are past, you need to see Training Rules.

In fact, I have a new training rule I’d like to propose for all sports: No bullies, no bigots, and no bystanders. It has a nice ring, don’t you think?

39 comments:

Sally said...

Pat,
Thank you for the wonderful review of Training Rules. Last week, after you posted about the premiere on Facebook, I checked out the website and was hoping you would provide all of us who couldn't be there with a detailed review. As you know, like you, I am passionate about celebrating the gifts that all of the GLBT community bring to the field, court, game and the world. It certainly sounds like Training Rules will inspire many to do the same. The more courageous people speak out against such horrid discrimination, the more these acts of ignorance will not be tolerated and the more the LGBT community will be able to live their lives free of fear. Thank you for taking the time to write this review and more importantly for continuing to do the work you do. And yes, "no bullies, no bigots, and no bystanders" has a nice ring to it!

hillsideslide said...

Pat,

I was able to attend the Philly Premiere as well. I'm from Indiana, Pa and have 2 friends who played with Cindy, Chris and Corinne.

What an honor to be there and meet you all.

I was blown away by the film & cannot wait for it's further distribution.

Also, I wanted to thank you for all that you do!

The movie was loaded with great role models and organizations- they were all new to me. THANK YOU for including the names/organizations in your post. I was hoping to track down the info.

Keep up the great work!

Pat Griffin said...

Sally and Hillsideslide, thanks for your comments on Training Rules and for the thank yous to me. I always appreciate hearing that what I do makes a difference to people.

I am asking Dee if I can post a clip or two from the film on my blog.

Carol Anne (aka Scamp) said...

"Training Rules" should be shown at the 2010 NCAA Women's Final Four to all the coaches. They averted their eyes while Rene was at Penn State; now they need to take a look at what they enabled.

Anonymous said...

I attended the premiere in Philadelphia in support of my partner, Donna who was the team manager during the time when Cindy, Chris and Corrine played. Donna was dismissed by Portland for her relationship with Cindy Davies. I expected the movie to be interesting but had no idea how compelling it would be. I had no idea the devastation Rene Portland caused these girls and all the facets of their lives that were affected. I am still bowled over by all that these women helplessly faced because of one homophobic coach and how they have all bravely and courageously rallied together in an attempt to change the future for lesbian women athletes.

-Margret

Anonymous said...

Carol Anne (aka Scamp) I agree with you that every coach should be required to view "Training Rules" and yes it should be shown at the 2010 NCAA Women's Final Four. Many coaches in this audience I know are homophobic and are bullies, not only women coaches but men coaches. There is just to much Bullying in the coaching ranks to Student Athletes. However the worse treatment is to gay athletes. Kate

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Anonymous said...

I just saw Training Rules on Netflix and thought it was a well put together documentary. I applaud J. Harris and the other players for bringing to light the horrible reign of Rene Portland. Very enlightening inside view to women's college basketball.

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I expected the movie to be interesting but had no idea how compelling it would be. I had no idea the devastation Rene Portland caused these girls and all the facets of their lives that were affected. I am still bowled over by all that these women helplessly faced because of one homophobic coach and how they have all bravely and courageously rallied together in an attempt to change the future for lesbian women athletes.

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