NOTE: This is an excerpt from a chapter of Finding a Way to Play. The original essay was a finalist in the nonfiction category of the 2016 Tucson Festival of Books. The photo is by Nathan Smith, who worked for the Penn State student newspaper at the time it was taken, and is used with his permission.
Cindy Davies sat rigid in her chair across from the tight-lipped glare of her basketball coach, Rene Portland. It was January, 1982, and Davies, a sophomore, had lived with Portland’s family the previous summer while she made up some classes at Penn State. But this wasn’t the “Mommy coach” (as Portland liked to call herself) who allowed Davies to wear low-cut Adidas while the rest of the team wore the school-issued Nikes. It wasn’t the doting coach who made sure Davies had two steaks at dinner and all the milk shakes she could drink in order to put some meat on her lanky center’s 6-2 frame. No, this was the righteous, powerful head coach of Penn State’s Lady Lions, on a singular mission to root out homosexuality on her basketball team. By the time the meeting was over, Davies had lost her scholarship to play basketball, and her teammates were admonished not to associate with her.
“Until that day, I was on a pedestal,” said Davies in 2014. “In 24 hours, my whole world shifted.”
During the 1980s, women’s college basketball — and women’s basketball in general — made tremendous gains. Title IX drew more and bigger colleges into the game, coaches began recruiting more aggressively, and the public took more of an interest in the women’s game. In 1982, the NCAA decided it made financial sense to take over the reins of women’s college sports programs (leading to the demise of the AIAW, which had broken the ground for the gains of the early 1970s).
The newfound visibility of women’s basketball, however, had a downside. It ushered in a virulent strain of homophobia that has left deep scars and still exists in some corners of the college game even today. It was one thing for owners in the Women’s Basketball League (WBL) of the early ’80s to promote a player’s femininity over her athleticism to get people to buy tickets, but quite another to discriminate against young athletes and female coaches who did not fit the image a particular college wanted to project. Yet that was the climate behind the scenes, even as women’s college basketball grew in popularity. Lesbian athletes were sworn to silence about their relationships for fear of losing scholarships, and coaches who happened to be lesbians stayed firmly closeted for fear of losing recruitment battles, and ultimately, their jobs.
During her 27-year reign of terror, more than a dozen young women — some secure with themselves as lesbians, others grappling with their newfound identities — were targeted by Portland and forced off the Penn State team. Portland also used her “family values” as a recruiting tool to compete against programs where basketball coaches or players were thought to be closeted lesbians.
“She said if I liked Virginia, I couldn’t like Penn State because at Virginia the girls dated girls and at Penn State, they dated guys,” Jennifer Harris told a reporter in 2005. Harris — a player she expelled from the team in 2003 for simply refusing to give up friends who were known lesbians — filed the lawsuit against Portland and Penn State that ultimately led to Portland resigning from her job in 2006.
Portland may have been the most notorious homophobe in women’s basketball, but she was enabled by a culture that bought into the stereotype that women’s team sports are composed mainly of lesbians and a few token straight women. It’s a sexist notion that for decades allowed men to keep women’s sports on the sidelines of social acceptance. In her book, Strong Women, Deep Closets, Pat Griffin, a lesbian, an athlete and a retired college professor, makes the case that before the 1920s, relationships between women were not seen as sexually deviant (the open bisexuality in the literary salons of the mid-1920s in New York City and in Paris certainly supports this). However, Griffin notes that the progressive social changes of the 1920s and the emergence of female sports programs at many colleges “ushered in a hostile backlash” against women working outside the home and participating in sports. Female athletes — especially those who continued playing after high school — were deemed to be “failed heterosexuals,” and sports teams (along with women’s colleges) were dubbed “spinster factories.” World War II brought some relief, as strong, independent women were an essential component to the war effort, but in the 1960s and 1970s — even as society became more accepting of female athletes — the paranoid notion that lesbians were somehow to be feared as sexual predators looking to lure young, vulnerable women into their webs, gained traction.
Rene Portland, Rene Muth back then, came of age during this era. She was a star for the miraculous Mighty Macs teams that captured three national championships in the 1970s. During those title runs, she and her teammates often suggested to reporters that the Catholic values by which they lived had as much to do with their success as their talents — and it is safe to say that Portland’s deeply-held religious views added fuel to the fire of her anti-lesbian fervor.
Portland began her coaching career at Saint Joseph’s College (Philadelphia) in the 1976-77 season and led the Hawks to the first round of the national tournament with a 23-5 record. She completed her second season with a 24-4 record and then moved to the University of Colorado in 1978-80, where her teams were 40-20 overall. In 1981, when Davies came to Penn State, Portland was in her second year at Penn State. Davies was a highly-touted recruit who had helped lead her Indiana, PA high school team to a 114-6 record. During her four years of high school, Davies scored 2,000+ points and made the Parade Magazine All-American team. She competed with the U.S. National team in the Jones Cup, an international tournament in Taiwan, upon graduation and chose Penn State over a number of colleges that had offered her full scholarships.
Portland called Davies her “diamond in the rough” and lavished extra attention on her throughout her freshman year, during part of which she couldn’t play because she was recovering from meningitis. As 1982 arrived, Davies, now a sophomore, was averaging 12 points a game. Davies says she was comfortable with herself, but quiet about the fact that she was in a lesbian relationship with the team manager. Somehow word got out, however, and a grad assistant, Liz McGovern, went to Davies to give her a heads-up that Coach Portland wanted to talk to her. McGovern cautioned Davies to reveal nothing in the meeting. “Whatever you do, don’t admit and don’t deny it. If you have to cry, cry,” McGovern told her.
When Portland started the meeting by saying that she had just dismissed Donna, the team manager, from the team, Davies’ heart sank. Portland proceeded to tell Davies she needed to make a choice between Donna and basketball. “It was like being a deer caught in the headlights,” recalls Davies almost 25 years later. “I do remember her saying, ‘I don’t know if (the rumors) are true, but if they are, there’s nothing stopping me from going to your parents, to the school, and to the media.”
Davies, 19, at the time, felt cornered. After a long silence, Davies proposed a hiatus from the team to concentrate on her studies. “I was hoping she’d say no…I don’t want you to quit,” Davies recalls. “I was hoping she’d react with the motherly side, not the tyrant.” But Portland accepted her resignation without discussion and called off practice that day: the only sign that Portland might have had some feelings about what had just transpired.
Davies spent a year out of school and fell into a deep depression, during which she contemplated suicide. She did get her degree at another school and played basketball there, but admits it was not the challenge that Penn State had provided. When she replays that moment in Portland’s office in her head — as she has hundreds of times — she imagines simply walking out the door and back into the closet just to keep her dreams of playing big time women’s basketball alive. “I g0t so low that I was looking for razor blades,” Davies says. “I felt like my life was over and that I would never play basketball again.”
Davies was actually the third victim of Portland’s lesbian purge that year. Christine and Corinne Gulas had played with Davies in high school and graduated a year before her. They were recruited by and played their freshman year at Penn State for Portland’s predecessor, Pat Meiser. Two scrappy guards known for their tenacious defense, no-look passes, and scoring abilities, one or the other of the Gulas twins led Penn State as freshmen in assists, steals, and scoring. When Meiser left and Portland took her place, Christine Gulas says the difference in coaching styles wasn’t like night and day. “It was like day and doomsday.”
Christine describes Portland as a drill sergeant who made the team study together, live in the same dorm, and adhere to strict rules against drinking and drugs. Still the team was winning and both players were starters. Corinne made the Kodak All-American that year and the sisters were looking forward to their junior year, when their old high school teammate, Cindy Davies, would be back on the court at full strength.
But the enthusiasm was short-lived. That spring, someone on the team revealed to Portland that Corinne was dating another player. The twins were called separately into Portland’s office where she threatened to take away each one of the twins’ scholarships and make transferring impossible if she found out about any homosexual activity.
“I was dumbfounded,” said Christine 25 years later. “When she asked if I had anything to say for myself, I just walked out. In those days, you never questioned authority. ” Christine left for summer camp that day and confided in friends, who told her to lay low and let it blow over. Corinne, on the other hand, was adamant that she wouldn’t change who she was for Portland. Their stepfather offered to take Portland to court for discrimination, but ultimately, the Gulas twins decided to try to put the threats behind them and just play ball.
“You’re talking about taking on one of the most powerful coaches in basketball,” recalls Christine. “It was like David and Goliath.”
After only three days of preseason at the beginning of their junior year, though, the twins decided to walk away from their scholarships. “On the third day we looked at each other and I said, “I don’t think I can put my head down and play for someone I have no respect for,” Christine recalls. “We called a meeting and resigned from the team. We didn’t say why. We just walked out.”
The Gulas twins went on to play at the University of New Hampshire, Christine for two years, and Corinne for one. There, Coach Cecilia DeMarco announced to the team before Christine arrived that she was a lesbian and that if anyone had a problem with it, they should feel free to come talk to her one on one.
Christine doesn’t know if anyone ever did, but she recalls that year — and the next one when the twins were reunited — as cathartic. “One of the things that was so cool about that team was how diverse we were,” she says. “There were brainaics among us, people who didn’t want to be in any relationship, people who wanted to be in a different relationship every week.”
At Penn State, meanwhile, Portland seemed to become more empowered as years passed to conduct purges, to disparage other programs, and even to go public about her “training rules: no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” Courtney Wicks, who left the team after one season, remembers Portland taking the team to a WNBA game in 1997. According to Wicks, Portland remarked at all the lesbians they seemed to be surrounded by and then continued to disparage the gay lifestyle on the bus after the game.
“If I could relate Penn State women’s basketball to any period in time, I would relate it to the McCarthy era,” said Wicks in the trailer for the 2009 documentary about homophobia called Training Rules. “She acted like lesbianism was a disease you catch in the locker room…and it’s going to spread.” Wicks was one of six former players — including Cindy Davies — who came out publicly to take part in the documentary and to support the lawsuit against Portland.
While the NCAA has had non-discrimination policies for many years, as did many public universities beginning in the 1990s, Portland was never reported or sanctioned for her remarks or her actions. Coaches who were the victims of her negative recruiting tactics were too fearful of being outed to come forward. Portland was a powerful and active member of the Women’s Basketball Coaching Association, an organization comprised of many closeted lesbians who nevertheless elected her its president in 1999 and named her its Coach of the Year in 2004.
Pat Griffin, who now consults with the LGBT Sports Coalition, a network of groups working at all levels to advocate for diversity in women’s sports, conducted diversity workshops for coaches at Penn State before and after Portland resigned. She says the first one in 1993 was just window dressing. With Portland in the room and her ally, Joe Paterno there beside her, coaches were afraid to say much. When she went back in 2008 after Portland had resigned, Griffin says the atmosphere had changed. “I think a lot of coaches were relieved she was gone. They worked really hard and dove into the topic and gave me a standing ovation at the end of the day,” Griffin recalls.
Beyond the lawsuit and the documentary, what finally did Portland in were the changing times. Everywhere Penn State played after the lawsuit was filed she was greeted by LBGT members and allies holding placards calling her a bigot. She was photographed on the sidelines with rainbow flags flying in the background. By the mid-2000s, with gay rights activism filtered down into every high school, and same-sex marriage on the ballot in many states, the administration that had long supported her realized her holy war was hurting the school’s reputation. “It became impossible for Penn State to defend her,” said Griffin, noting that the administration at the time included the same president and athletic director who defended football coach Joe Paterno during the Jerry Sandusky scandal in 2012. “They finally got how badly she was hurting the institution.”
Yet, seven years later, negative recruiting still exists in women’s college basketball, according to a number of sources. And only one female Division I basketball coach has been publicly willing to admit to the world that she is a lesbian. Most lesbian coaches today have adopted a “don’t ask, don’t tell” philosophy. Their families, trusted members of their staff — and in some cases their teams — may know they are lesbians, but they are not “out” to the world or to the high school girls and families they are recruiting for fear that it will be used against them. Heather Barber, a sports psychology professor at UNH has studied negative recruiting in college sports. She told ESPN.com in 2012, “Coaches aren’t worried about being fired for being lesbian….but they do worry about being fired for not being able to recruit successfully…”
Having to live a double life is often cited as one of the reasons for the decline in the number of women coaches. Older coaches who have spent their lives in the closet are retiring now to pursue opportunities to live in a more open way, including in many states, to marry their same-sex partner. The problem is that many of these women coaches are being replaced by men. Back in the AIAW days, upwards of 90 percent of women’s basketball teams were coached by women. Now, only 60% are coached by women, according to the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sports at the University of Minnesota, which studied 76 schools that comprised the six major conferences in the country in 2013.
“Young lesbians who think about going into coaching are not going to live a life in the closet,” says Pat Griffin. “That’s a huge deterrent to someone who wants to be a coach……”