Player Sues Coach For Discrimination

By Staff

Coaching Management, 14.3, March 2006,

As a sophomore guard for Penn State in 2004-05, Jennifer Harris started 22 games and averaged 10.4 points per game, ranking third on the team in points, steals, and assists. But at the end of the season, Head Coach Rene Portland told Harris she would not be welcomed back. Portland claimed Harris’s attitude and work ethic were detrimental to the team.

Harris, who sat out 2005-06 after transferring to James Madison University, tells a different story. Harris alleges that Portland repeatedly asked about her sexual orientation, pressured her to appear more “feminine,” told other players not to associate with her, and finally released her from the team because she thought Harris was gay. In late December, she filed a federal discrimination lawsuit against Portland.

Harris, who says she is not gay, is being assisted by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) in her suit. Harris’s dismissal is the third athletics-related anti-gay bias case the NCLR has handled in the past two years.

In 2004, the center settled out of court with the University of Florida after softball player Andrea Zimbardi claimed she was kicked off the team because she was a lesbian. In the settlement, Florida agreed to pay Zimbardi’s tuition for her master’s and implement mandatory training on homophobia for all of its coaches, athletic administrators, and staff.

In early 2005, NCLR assisted in a case in which Bloomburg (Texas) High School Girls’ Basketball Coach Merry Stephens accused the Bloomburg Independent School District of terminating her contract because of her sexual orientation. That case was also settled out of court after the Bloomburg School Board president testified under oath that Stephens had in fact been fired because she was gay.

“Jennifer Harris’s case is part of a bigger change in the way anti-gay bias is being handled in sports,” says Helen Carroll, Sports Project Coordinator at the center and a former NAIA basketball coach and NCAA D-III athletic director. “In the 1980s and 1990s, we tried awareness and education. But things didn’t really change until people began to take the issue to court. What these three cases are saying is that anti-gay discrimination in athletics is not going to be tolerated anymore.”

In order to help athletic departments discuss homophobia, the NCLR has collaborated with the NCAA and the Women’s Sports Foundation to produce a video and educational kit called “It Takes a Team,” which is available to administrators, coaches, parents, and athletes at high school and college levels. Navigating this issue successfully, says Carroll, begins with actively addressing it with your team.

“If you’re a basketball coach, you will encounter this issue,” Carroll says. “There will be lesbians on your team who are afraid of their straight teammates finding out they’re lesbians. There will be straight teammates spending their time trying to make sure the lesbian teammates don’t know they know, or straight teammates who will be concerned that lesbian players are hitting on them. Historically, players have been left to deal with the issue on their own, but in today’s climate, coaches need to step up and deal with it.”

The solution begins with breaking the silence. “In the first five minutes of their first team meeting, coaches need to say: ‘As individuals, we have many differences. Those include our backgrounds, our races, our religions, and our sexual orientations. On this team, we are going to accept our differences and turn them into strengths,’” Carroll says. “Most of the things on that list are commonly addressed by coaches in that setting, but few coaches will say, ‘We have gay players, straight players, and bisexual players—and that’s okay.’ Once a coach says that, no matter what their sexual orientation, players know their coach won’t allow discrimination.”

Talking about an issue that has a long history of silence can be tough, but simply by addressing the issue, coaches can prevent misunderstandings and protect themselves. “Once you bring it into the light and start talking about it,” says Carroll, “it really doesn’t have to be that big of a deal.”

Free downloads of “It Takes a Team” are available at the Women’s Sports Foundation’s Web site:

The National Center For Lesbian Rights provides educational materials, policy guidance, and free legal counsel, available at: