Sunday, January 29, 2012

Power, Penn State and Joe Paterno’s Legacy

This week Joe Paterno, the former Penn State iconic football coach, was laid to rest. In his 46 years as the Nittany Lions coach, he accomplished athletic goals most coaches can only dream of: National championships, the winningest record in college football, the undying devotion of current and former members of his teams. He was known for his insistence on “winning with honor” and on making sure that most of his players actually graduated. He was never cited for NCAA violations and he had a reputation for promoting good old fashioned values of hard work and integrity.

There is no question that Joe Paterno loved Penn State and that, for the most part, Penn State loved him back. What was not to love? The success of the football program put Penn State on the map. As the coach of one of the 14 or so college football programs in the US that actually make a profit, Joe Paterno, as the head coach in charge of a multi-billion dollar enterprise, wielded incredible power in State College. It is impossible to visit this small college town in the middle of rural Pennsylvania and not feel the influence and presence of Joe Paterno everywhere. If he was not a God in State College, he was a king. It is fair to say that nothing of consequence, certainly nothing that might affect the football program, happened without the stamp of approval from “JoePa,” as he was called by many students in State College.

Gordon Spanier was president of the university, but Joe Paterno was the king. He put Penn State on the map and everyone on campus, regardless of their institutional power or position, deferred to him. A few years ago, Paterno was encouraged to step aside by Spanier and members of the Board of Trustees. “Encouraged” is the operative word here because, it was out of the question that anyone but Joe Paterno would make the decision about when it was time to go. When the meeting was over, Joe Paterno was still the coach and the administrators to whom he, in theory, reported, were sent packing back to their little offices somewhere not in the football kingdom over which he ruled absolutely.

Paterno once referred to himself as a “benevolent dictator.” He knew his power and he protected and used it as he saw fit. He saw fit to use his power to protect Rene Portland, the former women’s basketball coach at Penn State. Portland’s “no drugs, no alcohol, no lesbians” team policy was a well-known “secret” among many coaches and fans. As described in “Training Rules,” the excellent documentary on this sad 25 year period of prejudice and discrimination, Portland had free rein to destroy the dreams of any player she perceived to be a lesbian. The same cast of administrators who failed to act when told of the allegations of child rape against former football coach, Jerry Sandusky, also failed to take action against Portland. Because she had Joe Paterno’s protection, Penn State defended and protected her.

According to this interview with former VP in charge of judicial appeals at Penn State, Vicky Triponey, she resigned in part because of Paterno’s interference with university process and procedures when football players were charged with serious violations of the student conduct code. Paterno had no qualms about inserting his power into these proceedings to demand, apparently at the top of his lungs as he saw fit, that football players receive special treatment. He did not want the university disciplining his players. Triponey acknowledges that her decisions about disciplining football players were overruled on more than one occasion by university administrations who bowed to Paterno’s pressure.

Somewhere along the line, Joe Paterno’s stature in State College entered in to the mythical realm. He was treated as a living legend. Somewhere along the line protecting Penn State football and Joe Paterno’s legacy became more important than acting on information that threatened that public legacy of “winning with honor” and his vaunted reputation of integrity. Somewhere along the line, Joe Paterno, the king of State College, lost his moral compass. Ask the women’s basketball players whose careers Rene Portland ruined. Ask VP Vicky Triponey who absorbed the wrath of Paterno’s power over her enforcement of the student conduct code with football players. Ask the victims of the Jerry Sandusky scandal who must listen every day to the defenders of Joe Paterno who have made a child sex abuse scandal all about Joe and HIS mistreatment at the hands of the Board of Trustees who fired him.

It is difficult to reconcile the Joe Paterno who was king of Penn State with the Joe Paterno who claimed he didn’t know what to do when he learned in 2002 about the allegations against Jerry Sandusky. Joe Paterno always knew what to do. Joe Paterno never was reluctant to use his power to get what he wanted. When it came down to it, Joe Paterno acted as he always did: He acted to protect his own and Penn State football’s public image and legacy. He did what was legally required of him, but no more. He reported it to his “superiors” and then forgot about it. It was out of his hands.

This time, however, the enormity of the allegations against Sandusky and the lack of response to these allegations by Paterno and all the administrators involved, brings to light the hypocrisy of Penn State football’s claim of “winning with integrity.” The truth is if Joe Paterno had used his power, as he had in so many other situations, to insist on a serious investigation of the allegations against Sandusky at the time when he first learned of them, it would have happened. Period. If Joe Paterno had used his power as boldly as he always had, other young men might have been spared becoming victims.

If ever there was a message about the dangers of ceding power to college football or basketball coaches because of their winning records and ability to bring in the bucks to a university, this is it. If ever a scandal exposed the myth of integrity and honor in big time college sports, this is it. In this, the defining moment of his career, Joe Paterno was no hero and he did not win with honor.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Fired Lesbian Coach and School Reach Settlement

In November, I posted an article about a lesbian high school coach who was fired from her teaching and coaching position. Here is that post.

Apparently the coach and the school have reached a settlement agreement. It is unclear from the article what the terms of the settlement are, but I hope that, at the very least, Nikki was able to have her letter of termination rescinded so that she can find another teaching/coaching position.

As I pointed out in the original post about this situation, teachers and coaches in Texas who are fired or discriminated against on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression have no legal recourse. It was only due to the protests of students and parents at the school and pressure from LGBT advocates and others who were appalled and outraged at the school's discriminatory actions that anything close to a happy ending came of this.

It is probably too much to ask that the school officials who fired Nikki learned anything or changed their policies. Maybe they learned that they can no longer count on the silence of LGBT educators when they are discriminated against. Maybe they learned that most students and parents care more about the quality and integrity of their teachers and coaches than they do about their sexual orientation or gender identity. I suppose that is a start.

I hope Nikki will find another position coaching and teaching where she will be appreciated and where she can continue to inspire the young people she works with.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Update on Lawsuit Filed by Kilgore, TX Lesbian Softball Player and Her Mother

Last January I started the year describing a situation in a Kilgore, TX high school where a lesbian softball player was, according to allegations in her lawsuit against the school, athletic director and coaches, treated outrageously by her coaches.

Skye Wyatt’s lawsuit alleges that her softball coaches violated her right to privacy by outing her to her mother. The case is the first in which the 5th U.S. Circuit — which covers Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas — has identified a constitutional right to privacy for sexual orientation information.
The lawsuit claims that the coaches:

1. Called Skye to a fake team meeting
2. Locked Skye in the locker room alone with the coaches
3. Berated Skye about being a lesbian and accused her of spreading gossip about one of the coaches being lesbian
4. Called Skye’s mother to the school and outed Skye to her mother
5. Kicked Skye off the softball team

The School district is mounting a full defense of the coaches’ actions claiming that they followed school policy by outing Skye. From the article, “In court documents, the defendants allege that Skye Wyatt had been openly gay for several years and never attempted to keep her sexuality secret. They also argue that the coaches had a legitimate interest in revealing Wyatt’s sexual orientation to her mother, because they were concerned about her safety. The coaches said they believed Wyatt was in a potentially illegal relationship with an 18-year-old woman.”

The coaches’ outing of Skye to her mother caused a rift in their relationship and began a downward spiral of depression for Skye, whose dreams of playing college softball and possibly coaching some day were destroyed.
The claim that the coaches acted out of concern for Skye seem ridiculous. How is calling a high school student to a fake meeting, in effect to trick her into the locker room, and locking her there to confront her about her sexual orientation an expression of concern for her safety by any stretch of the imagination?

How is telling her mother about Skye’s sexual orientation, in what feels like retaliation for Skye’s refusal to admit that she was spreading gossip about the coach’s sexual orientation, in any way an act of concern, support or care? It looks to me like that this decision by the coaches was malicious and punitive, not an expression of concern for Skye’s safety.

Then there is the issue of kicking Skye off the team. How is that an expression of concern for her safety and well-being? If the coaches cared about Skye, you’d think they’d want to keep on the team, participating in a school activity she loves.

With all the progress in addressing LGBT issues in sport we witnessed in 2011 - Several major men’s professional leagues adding sexual orientation to their non-discrimination policies, the NCAA adopting a policy enabling trans athletes to participate on sex-separate teams, high school and college LGBT athletes coming out right and left, straight athlete allies stepping forward to publicly support their LGBT teammates - this case is a sad reminder that we still have lots of work to do.

When a school district anywhere defends the actions of coaches who carelessly abuse their power and position in ways that damage the lives and dreams of the young people they are supposed to protect and nurture, we still have a big problem. Skye and Barbara Wyatt’s courageous lawsuit shines a light on the disconnect between the high profile actions we celebrated in 2011and the day to day reality of discrimination that far too many young LGBT athletes continue to face. We have come a long way, but until lawsuits like this one become unnecessary to achieve fairness and justice for LGBT students, we still have important battles to fight.

A judge has rejected the school district’s motion for a summary judgment and the case will go to trial in mid-January. I will keep you posted.