In early October, former Penn State guard Jennifer Harris accused Nittany Lions women’s basketball coach Rene Portland of discrimination based on Portland’s alleged belief that Harris was a lesbian. According to Harris, that treatment led her to transfer this semester to James Madison University in Virginia.
Harris claims Portland dismissed her from the team because the coach believed she had an alternative sexual preference.
While Penn State administrators have said they will lead a full investigation into the matter, the incident is not the first time the sexual orientations of female athletes have come under scrutiny. Gay and lesbian rights groups across the country are calling for action following these allegations, which they contend add to the widely held stereotypes concerning sexual preference in women’s athletics.
Just two years ago, Andrea Zimbardi, a catcher on the Florida softball team, claimed she was released from the team due to sexual orientation discrimination. Last April, Mary Stephens, a Bloomburg, Texas, girls’ basketball coach, settled a case against the district school board in which she contended she was fired due to several board members’ opinions that, as a lesbian, she did not deserve to work in the district.
The issue is prevalent enough for Penn State and Temple University to both include “sexual orientation discrimination” among their anti-discrimination policies.
According to two experts on social perceptions in sports, there is a stigma in women’s athletics that can be damaging not only to the sport, but to the individual as well.
Mark Messner, chair of the sociology department at the University of Southern California and author of Taking the Field: Women, Men and Sports, said in an e-mail response to questions that female athletes’ identities can be damaged through their fear of openness concerning their sexual orientation.
“It’s harmful to lesbian women and to those whose sexual identities are forming, to feel that they may be in a context that is hostile to who they believe they are,” Messner wrote.
Messner said all female athletes are subject to this stigma, regardless of their true sexual identity.
“It’s harmful also to young athletes who believe that they are 100 percent heterosexual, because it can rip the guts right out of what might have been an experience of being part of a positive, mutually affirming group that accepts and nourishes a range of identities and relationships while learning to work together toward a team goal,” Messner said.
Nowhere does the NCAA mission statement state, however, that the goal of intercollegiate athletics is to accept or nourish a range of identities. As close to equality as the mission statement comes is assuring “an inclusive culture that fosters equitable participation for student-athletes and career opportunities for coaches and administrators from diverse backgrounds.”
Regardless of theories surrounding what collegiate athletics should be, Pat Griffin, director of “It Takes a Team,” an informational campaign for lesbian and gay issues in sports, said the fact remains that there is a catch-22 in women’s athletics. The same characteristics that bring success in the women’s game are those that fuel the stereotyping, she said. Messner agreed.
Aggressiveness and physical prowess in women’s sports, Messner said, are examples of characteristics that could lead to stereotyping in certain sports.
“Men’s sports historically have been associated with virile heterosexual masculinity,” Messner said. “Even men who secretly identify as homosexual, if they are athletes, are assumed to be heterosexual. Women’s sports historically have been defined in ways that raise questions [about], rather than affirm, a woman’s gender.”
As the Stephens case illustrates, athletes are not only under scrutiny during their collegiate careers. Some issues can arise even before an athlete chooses her college.
Casey Dickson, recruiting coordinator for three college programs before becoming head softball coach at Temple, said using sexual orientation as a recruiting tool “was never an issue.”
“I don’t feel sexual orientation is a problem, at least not from a coaching perspective,” Dickson said. “Everyone is not always going to be the same. As long as you’re a well-rounded individual on and off the field, nothing else matters.”
Though coaches may not use sexual orientation as recruiting tools, Griffin said athletes can still be categorized by their coaches and teammates based on perceived sexual orientation.
“It’s a scare tactic,” Griffin said. “Being labeled as a lesbian is still a scary thing for most people.”
Messner shared Griffin’s sentiment.
“Alluding sometimes to a competitor in the recruiting battles as having ‘different family values’ is a thinly coded way to say that lesbians are tolerated or even encouraged at a competing university,” Messner said.
Upon several attempts, Temple female athletes from various intercollegiate sports either could not be reached for comment or declined to comment on whether the issue of sexual orientation was something they considered when choosing a school.
Women’s basketball coach Dawn Staley, field hockey coach Amanda Janney and lacrosse coach Jennifer Ulehla each declined comment on the issue of sexual orientation in women’s athletics.
Griffin said the “no comment” responses from Temple coaches did not surprise her.
“The stigma has been a problem for a long time,” said Griffin, author of Strong Women, Deep Closets: Lesbians and Homosexuals in Sports. “The standard response has always been silence.”
That silence, Messner and Griffin said, may be one of the reasons the stigma is so powerful today.
Though the allegations against Penn State’s Portland came out three weeks ago, at a time when women’s sports is recovering from a battle with the Department of Education and its efforts to change collegiate compliance with Title IX, Griffin said the allegations should not be a blow to women’s athletics. In fact, Griffin said, things might be improving in the public’s perception of women’s athletics.
“Things are better than they were ten years, even five years ago,” Griffin said. “The NCAA is more active. [It has] included sexual orientation in diversity training for coaches, [and has] purchased ‘It Takes a Team’ educational materials.”
In her defense, Portland, women’s basketball coach at Penn State for the last 25 years, maintains that Harris’ departure was not due to discrimination. Portland said in a press release that it was Harris’ work ethic and attitude that were “unsatisfactory and detrimental to the success of the team.”
Like Penn State, Temple’s policy concerning discrimination is spelled out in Section 13 of its 2005-2006 Employee Handbook, which governs all Temple employees, including athletics staff.
“The university does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, ancestry, age disability, marital status or veteran status,” the manual reads.
Handbooks are pivotal, but Griffin said the biggest pro-women’s sports boost comes from athletes who aren’t afraid to take a stand.
“Young athletes like Harris are starting to come out and say this is wrong … the more we have real people like [WNBA star] Sheryl Swoopes come out, [the more it will] lead to acceptance,” Griffin said. “It breaks down the stigma.”
Danielle K. Milner can be reached at email@example.com.