Homophobia whispers grow louder in negative recruiting game

On High Schools

High Schools

December 13, 2005|By MILTON KENT

Let's say you're the parent of a female underclassman who has athletic talent, enough so that major Division I coaches are pursuing your daughter to accept a scholarship to their school.

And let's say that at a crucial point in the recruiting process, when you and your daughter have narrowed your choice of schools, the coach of one of those schools says that players at another college you're considering are lesbians.

At that point, do you ask the coach for a pen to sign a letter of intent or do you drop the coach and the school from consideration?

That's an easy one, right? In a perfect world, most of us couldn't get ourselves and our kids out of the room fast enough. In the real world, many of us aren't as courageous as we'd hope to be, particularly when a college scholarship is on the line.

For the record, what may have appeared to be a hypothetical at the top of this column is anything but hypothetical to a large number of girls on the doorstep of collegiate athletics. Homophobia, dressed up in the form of negative recruiting, has been a silent part of the recruiting process for years, dating way back before the 1972 enactment of Title IX.

Girls have received a message, either through covert whispers and code words or through flat-out overt statements that playing the games that men play could make females just like men, with all that that supposedly entails.

Of course, most of the negative things that are said about women's athletics and athletes are said by men, but, sadly, there have always been women within the games who have traded on stereotypes for their own benefits.

Take Penn State women's basketball coach Rene Portland, for instance. Portland is one of the most accomplished coaches in the sport, with 668 wins and a Final Four appearance when the season began. She also has publicly stated at least twice in the past 20 years that she would not knowingly recruit a lesbian, and if a lesbian player turned up on her roster, she would weed her out.

Penn State added sexual orientation to its anti-discrimination policy in 1991, but rather than embracing the school's policy, Portland has only said that she would abide by it.

But if Jennifer Harris is to be believed, Portland has not only failed to abide by the school's policy, but she also has trampled on it. Harris and two other players were booted from the Lady Lions' roster after the team dropped a first-round NCAA tournament game last March against Liberty, with Harris, then a sophomore, contending that Portland repeatedly asked her during her time at State College if she was a lesbian.

Harris, who transferred to James Madison, says she is not a lesbian and has filed a complaint against Portland with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, claiming the coach discriminated against her on gender and racial lines.

In a brief statement last month, the only one she or the school has issued on the matter, Portland denied Harris' claims, saying she kicked the player off the team because of her attitude. "My career has been built on treating all Lady Lion players with equal respect. I will continue to do so."

However, Pearl Harris, Jennifer's mother, told ESPN's Outside the Lines that during a recruiting visit to Penn State, Portland told them that if Jennifer Harris was serious about considering Virginia, her other final choice, then she couldn't be serious about going to Penn State because the players at Virginia dated girls.

In a perfect world, the Harrises would have stormed off campus immediately. In the real world, however, they took the scholarship, and look where that got them.

People of goodwill may be appalled by what Portland is alleged to have said and done in the name of program purity. But it's clear that Portland is not alone, and it's also clear that it must work, otherwise Portland and other coaches like her wouldn't do it.

Respecting the views and lifestyles of others, political correctness in the vernacular of some, is important, but such high-minded goals can go right out the window when your daughter could be affected. And while your heart may tell you to ignore that kind of whisper, if you and your child are talking to one coach about what happens in another coach's program, how closely do you listen?

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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