Review of Documentary Film “Training Rules” about abusive coach

I wrote this for University of Iowa’s journal:

Training Rules (2009). Dir. and Prod. Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker. WomanVision. 63 mins.

Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker’s multiple award-winning documentary Training Rules tells the story how Penn State women’s basketball coach Rene Portland ruled the court with homophobia for twenty-seven years. Portland headed up Penn State’s Lady Lions basketball team starting in 1980. She built a highly respected, highly achieving program as seen from the outside. However, Training Rules exposes her rules against lesbians and their impact on those who played for her.

Mosbacher and Yacker hit hard by juxtaposing photographs and fast-paced footage of exceptional athletes on the court, alongside interviews with these same players as older women looking back on the harm they suffered both as athletes and individuals. Former Penn State basketball players who tell their stories include Cindy Davies, Lisa Faloon, Chris and Corinne Gulas, and Courtney Wicks. Portland’s assistant coach in the early 1980’s, Liz McGovern speaks up as does Sue Rankin, a former Penn State softball coach who has fought against homophobia at Penn State for over thirty years.

Training Rules appears to have ushered in greater awareness of coaching abuse. In the six years since the film premiered, there have been many media reports of coaches being fired for abusive conduct. It is now common to see reflective pieces like the 2013 New York Times article, “A Sad History of Abusive Coaches.” Similarly, Alexander Wolff’s 2015 Sports Illustrated feature asks: “Is the era of abusive college coaches finally coming to an end?”

Six years earlier, Training Rules provided disturbing answers to Wolff’s question: college and sport communities tolerate and reward abusive coaches; homophobia is normalized in sport; and coaches are given power over athletes that other educators are not. This sets up the necessary conditions for abuse to flourish and to decimate targeted student-athletes like Jennifer Harris, whom Portland recruited to play at Penn State in 2002.

Although they breached Penn State’s discrimination policies, Portland enforced three training rules: “no drinking, no drugs, no lesbians.” The filmmakers reveal that Portland to put her own prejudices above winning. Nonetheless, she was honored and rewarded by the athletics community and protected by the university. In particular, Joe Paterno stood behind her. After the Jerry Sandusky trial, it is distressing to see Paterno supporting yet another abusive coach.

Training Rules focuses on the 2006 lawsuit Jennifer Harris filed against Penn State University and Rene Portland for discrimination. Under Portland’s abusive regime, Jennifer Harris went from an excellent pre-med student and highly gifted athlete to contemplating suicide. This is not an unusual reaction to coach abuse, as confirmed by the stories of abusive coaches like Kelly Greenberg, Shann Hart and Beckie Harris. But Harris refused to be yet another casualty. Her groundbreaking lawsuit encouraged other victims of Portland’s abuse to come forward and support her in a bitter two year battle in court. Harris cannot speak in the film due to legal issues; however, her parents tell her story and other victims of Portland’s abuse share their experiences. Shining a spotlight on Harris’s unjust suffering and her attempts to fight back make this film a character-driven analysis of a significant social issue.

Men’s sports programs have similar stories of homophobia and failures to protect athletes from it. Perhaps most notably, footage of Rutgers University Coach Mike Rice hurling homophobic slurs at his players surfaced in 2013. Due to the suicide of gay student Tyler Clementi three years earlier, Rutgers refused to sweep away homophobia with the usual platitudes and fired Rice. Putting Rice’s homophobic slurs next to Rene Portland’s anti-gay rule reveals an unsettling truth: college coaches have long been allowed to transfer their prejudices onto their athletes.

It would never be tolerated for professor to insist students enact their ideals of sexuality. It is hard to fathom how this ever has been accepted on a basketball court. And yet, homophobic bullying continues, especially in high school and amateur sports programs where young athletes are often unaware that they are being abused. Coaches often lay down training rules that amount to bullying and discrimination. Beyond the light it sheds on Portland’s Penn State regime, Training Rules provides a useful lesson on coaching abuse and how to combat it.




About Jennifer Fraser PhD

I am an author and educator. My latest book Teaching Bullies tells the story of 14 students who came forward to report on the verbal, emotional and some physical abuse at the hands of their teachers. How they were treated by school administrators, lawyers, and educational authorities is cause for alarm. The story is grounded in psychological, psychiatric, neuroscientific and sports journalism. It is a call to action for all those who want to protect children from bullying especially when it's done by teachers and coaches.
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