Nittany nastiness

Two Penn State coaches commit major fouls.

Published January 9, 2006 7:50PM (EST)

An AMERICAblog entry by Chris in Paris has alerted us to two recent disturbing stories out of the Penn State athletic department.

In late December, the National Center for Lesbian Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of basketball player Jennifer Harris against Penn State, where she played for two years. The suit also named women's basketball coach Rene Portland and athletic director Tim Curley as defendants. Harris, a 6-foot guard and former honors student, alleges that during the years she played for the Lady Lions, "Coach Portland repeatedly inquired about [her] sexual orientation, pressured Harris to change her appearance to be more 'feminine,' harassed and targeted Harris and other African American athletes, and eventually told other players not to associate with Harris. In 2005, Coach Portland abruptly told Harris to find somewhere else to play." The suit claims that Portland, Curley and the university itself violated federal and state laws and constitutional protections against discrimination based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

Portland is famous for her "no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians" policy, which she made public in a 1986 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times and which Harris' lawsuit claims has not abated, despite Penn State's addition of sexual orientation to its nondiscrimination policy. Harris has transferred to James Madison University.

The second, and more recent, piece of news is tough to report for those of us (OK, me) who grew up amid the relentless beatification of Joe Paterno -- JoePa -- Penn State's legendary football coach for the past 40 years. According to an Associated Press story Sunday, Pennsylvania NOW president Joanne Tosti-Vasey has asked Paterno to resign following comments he made about an alleged sexual assault. Paterno made the comments in response to a reporter who asked him about the case of Florida State linebacker A.J. Nicholson, who had been accused of sexual assault and sent home before the Orange Bowl. No charges have yet been filed against Nicholson.

According to the AP, Paterno told the reporter, "He may not have even known what he was getting into, Nicholson. They knock on the door; somebody may knock on the door; a cute girl knocks on the door. What do you do?" He also said, "Geez. I hope -- thank God they don't knock on my door because I'd refer them to a couple of other rooms ... But that's too bad. You hate to see that. I really do. You like to see a kid end up his football career. He's a heck of a football player, by the way; he's a really good football player. And it's just too bad."

A university spokesman told the AP on Sunday that Paterno's comments were taken out of context. Another Penn State communications official, Guido D'Elia, told the news service that the coach "meant no malice ... If you heard his tone, he really thought it was too bad for everybody. He was concerned for everybody."

Paterno came in for related criticism in 2003, when he allowed a player to play in the Capital One Bowl three weeks after the school had sentenced the player to a two-semester expulsion after a female student accused him of sexual assault.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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