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 and Courtney Wicks. Jennifer Harris, the athlete who filed the 2005 lawsuit against Penn State and Portland. Jen’s mother, Pearl, was 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 Lady Lions 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 Cindy Davies 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 Lady Lions 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 Lady Lion experience and cannot tell their stories.
My final impression is, after seeing the documentary and then talking with each of the former Lady Lions 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 Lady Lions 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 Lady Lions featured in Training Rules encourages coaches to reflect on 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 WomanVision 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?