Thursday, March 22, 2007

Portland's homophobia and the curse of women's basketball

For most of the 1980s and 1990s, Penn State was the most prominent women's basketball program that could not reach the pinnacle. Despite yearly top 10 or top 15 rankings, consistent success and good recruiting, the Lady Lions were always a step below the southern teams (Tennessee, Auburn, Vanderbilt, Texas, La. Tech) that dominated the mid-80s and fell behind the temporary powers of the early 90s (Stanford, Virginia) and the emerging powers of the east (UConn, Duke, UNC). So Portland was like the Gene Keady of women's hoops, with one exception -- she made one Final Four, Keady made none.

Portland's sacking is notable because she is one of the early NCAA women's hoops coaches, who are all but untouchable (Pat Summit, Jody Conradt). The NCAA did not include women's sports within its organization until the early 80s, and coaches who were in place at or near the assumption of power by the NCAA over women's hoops are minor royalty in the community -- standard-bearers in the fight for equality, Title IX, recognition, etc. Indeed, two notable coaches are almost completely untouchable because they oversaw the birth of the programs in the NCAA -- Virginia's Deb Ryan and NC State's Kay Yow. Neither Virginia nor NC State has been a prominent program since at least the mid-90s.

In recent years, Portland has come under fire for her hardline stance against lesbians. Her non-denial denials only indicate a strong distaste for homosexuality in her program. There are some potential justifications: Nancy Lieberman's rampant sexual deviations have caused trouble in various places she's played and tarnished her image as the first great women's basketball player in the US; the Texas program went from perennial title contender to the dumpster in the mid-90s thanks to a lesbian assistant coach who hit on students; the LSU program is now in turmoil after Pokey Chatman's resignation following revelation of her sexual affair with one of the team's former players. But all those situations had one thing in common: the authority figure (Lieberman as coach or captain, Chatman the coach, the Texas assistant) made sexual advances toward the players. Portland rejected homosexuality among the players, period.

There is undoubtedly lesbianism in women's sports, and it is more open than homosexuality in men's sports, to say the least. At U.Va., the homosexuality of many field hockey and women's soccer players was an open secret, but the female swimmers were a bunch of "d*ck-hungry sluts" in the words of their own coach. The question is, does it interfere with the team's ability to function as a group? Where there are lesbian coaches essentially recruiting players with half an eye toward a future relationship, then it does; if not, then seemingly the problem is much more conceived than real.

Portland survived a climate far less tolerant of homosexuality despite her open proclamations against lesbians in the mid-80s and early 90s. Combined with a 28-32 record in the past two years, a decline in the program generally, a black eye from a harassment lawsuit and a climate less tolerant of her brand of homophobia, she could not survive the storm. Penn State was right to fire her.

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