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chapter 13 Rene Portland and the Culture of Athletic Silence “I think Rene has done a great job. . . . I hired her.” —Joe Paterno (2002) “The ability to misuse another person and to find reasons to excuse it is a universal human trait.” —Scott Nolte (2006) The culture of silence was no clearer in the athletic administration and at Penn State University than the case of the Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland from 1980 to 2007. Women’s athletics seemingly had less need for a culture of silence, since women’s athletics were not widely visible after being given varsity status beginning in 1964. Nevertheless, it occurred in the most important women’s sport at Penn State—as basketball dominated women’s sport across the nation. Basketball had been the leading women’s sport in U.S. colleges since shortly after its invention by James Naismith. The sport for both men and women spread like a fire in an abandoned wooden shed once introduced by the Springfield YMCA School in 1891. A woman’s physical educator, Senda Berenson, introduced the sport to the women of Smith College only months after its invention, and it grew rapidly across the country. No other sport, including field hockey, softball, and gymnastics, became the driving force that women’s basketball did through the entire twentieth century.1 Penn State had a women’s basketball team by the first decade of the twentieth century, though not as a varsity sport. Once women had varsity athletics at Penn State, however , women’s gymnastics was far more popular with Penn State fans than was basketball. For a few years, women’s gymnastics filled the Recreation Building in the late 1970s and into the 1980s. One gymnastic meet with California State University at Fullerton in 1980 graced Penn State’s Recreation Building with the largest crowd ever in the university’s only arena. Far in excess of the seating capacity or fire regulations, there were fans three, four, or five deep on the track surrounding the seated crowd and spectators on the gymnasium floor almost up to the gymnastic equipment.2 Yet basketball, once it had discarded the strange and restrictive game of six-player basketball in the 1970s, became more popular. Out went the rules where players were once forced to play only Smith_text.indd 140 12/7/15 11:11 AM Rene Portland and the Culture of Athletic Silence 141 on one end of the court either on defense or on offense and later allowed one player to be a “rover” to play the entire court. It became a game that demanded greater athleticism that would attract more fans. Intercollegiate athletics for women at Penn State were rather genteel and ladylike in their early years. Sport for women had existed since the end of the nineteenth century and a Women’s Athletic Association was formed in 1918.3 Penn State women, with little financial aid, played games, but with little interest outside of those who participated directly. Competition moved from Play Days (at which players from several schools divided up to play games and the home school sociably provided cookies and juice) to Sports Days (at which teams from a number of schools, with minimal coaching, played several shortened contests in one day), and finally, regular dual competition. Once athletic scholarships were offered, the level of competition jumped rapidly in the 1970s. This was especially true after Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 became law, banning sexual discrimination in educational institutions receiving federal aid.4 The Penn State intercollegiate teams that began officially in 1964 were given a small amount of financial assistance from the Athletic Department run by the dean and athletic director of the College of Health and Physical Education, Ernie McCoy. Two years before Joe Paterno became head football coach, Penn State had nine women’s intercollegiate teams: basketball, fencing, field hockey, golf, gymnastics, lacrosse, softball, riflery, and tennis.5 Much of the very limited competition was held on women’s physical education fields or in the women’s physical education facility, White Building. At the beginning, the varsity coaches were selected from the women’s physical education faculty, whose full-time teaching schedules were then adjusted. A small number of spectators attended the contests, and, with the exception of gymnastics, competing at the national level was minimal. In gymnastics, a talented gymnast who was attending Penn State in the early 1970s, Karen Schuckman, won a national all...


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