Helen Carroll first met Cindy Davies in 2005, when Carroll drove across the dusty plains of Texas to hear a tale of discrimination and heartache.

Davies had played basketball at Penn State under coach Rene Portland in the early 1980s, until Portland's harassment regarding her sexual orientation drove her from the team. She was one of several targets of a coach openly biased against gay athletes. When Carroll met Davies years later, she saw a woman still devastated by the theft of her sports dreams.

"I felt I was talking to a person who didn't have much confidence, who was broken down,'' said Carroll, director of the sports project at the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "I think when the details of the Penn State case came out, people in the sports world were shocked at the extent of the effect on the athletes. But when I saw her Sunday, she was standing tall, walking with a confidence I couldn't believe.''

That's because Carroll, Jen Harris, and filmmakers Dee Mosbacher and Fawn Yacker helped give Davies and other Lady Lions a voice. When Harris was kicked off the team in 2005, she sought help from the NCLR, which filed charges against Penn State and shed new light on homophobia in women's sports. Mosbacher and Yacker tell the stories of Harris, Davies and other athletes in their new documentary film "Training Rules,'' which will be shown Wednesday at the Walker Art Center.

The film focuses on Harris' well-known case, which led to Portland's resignation in 2007. It also grants a forum to women who had no recourse when Portland harassed them and shoved them out of the program. Several featured athletes attended a screening Sunday at San Francisco's Castro Theatre, marking another step in a journey of personal healing and cultural awakening.

"One of them said, 'Finally, somebody listened to my story, and something is actually being done to make things better,'" Carroll said. "Jen had resources like the NCLR, which wasn't around when they were going through it.

"As the film says, this is just one case. I work with athletes almost every day, across the U.S., that this is happening to. We're making progress, but like sexism and racism, this is something that will require us to be ever vigilant.''

The problem of homophobia in women's sports springs from stereotypes about female athletes and the desire to create culturally acceptable images. Some coaches worry that having lesbians on their staff or roster will alienate boosters, make the program hard to sell to a wide audience and limit media coverage. Negative recruiting has flourished, as coaches try to sway recruits and their parents by suggesting other programs have gay coaches or players.

Carroll said some coaches and administrators simply feel lesbians are bad for women's sports -- a ridiculous idea to anyone who appreciates Billie Jean King, Sheryl Swoopes or Babe Didrikson Zaharias. But such powerful people as Portland have wielded their biases with impunity, even as universities began adding sexual orientation to their nondiscrimination policies.

By pulling back the curtain on Portland's policies -- the "training rules'' of the film's title are no drinking, no drugs and no lesbians -- Harris and the NCLR launched a long-overdue discussion. In addition to helping individual athletes, Carroll runs workshops to educate coaches and administrators on how to prevent homophobia from poisoning their programs.

Recently, she has found more coaches willing to tackle the issue, as well as parents who fiercely support daughters who have come out. The NCAA also has become proactive; it has co-sponsored a think tank with the NCLR on how to identify and eliminate negative recruiting, which Carroll views as a major component in propagating homophobia.

A former athletic director at Division III Mills College, Carroll views the Portland case as "the Title IX moment'' for lesbians in sport. Her work, and Mosbacher and Yacker's film, have kept momentum rolling toward a day when an athlete's sexual orientation isn't an issue.

"After the Penn State case, our workshops were standing room only,'' she said. "We've taken that first big step, where people are receptive to speaking about the issue and trying to find a solution. Now we have to continue to educate people, and when problems arise, take care of them -- instead of sweeping them under the rug.''

Rachel Blount • rblount@startribune.com