Sports

Kick Her Off

By giving Jaelene Hinkle a roster spot, U.S. Soccer sold out its LGBTQ fans and players for a better shot at the Women’s World Cup.

North Carolina defender Jaelene Hinkle advances down the wing marked by Portland Thorns midfielder MIdge Purce during the first half of the North Carolina Courage 4–1 victory over the Portland Thorns on May 30 in Oregon.
From right, North Carolina defender Jaelene Hinkle advances down the wing marked by Portland Thorns midfielder Midge Purce during the North Carolina Courage–Portland Thorns match on May 30 in Oregon.
Diego Diaz/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.

On June 26, 2015, the day the Supreme Court affirmed same-sex couples’ right to marry, the U.S. women’s national soccer team was in Canada playing at the Women’s World Cup.* “Obviously it impacts my life personally,” said then-captain Abby Wambach, one of a couple of out gay players on the team. “And to cap it off with a win, moving on to the semis in a World Cup, for me it doesn’t get better.” Her ecstatic kiss with her then-wife after the U.S. won the title a few days later became one of the tournament’s most iconic images.

Meanwhile, back in the U.S., Wambach’s fellow pro soccer player Jaelene Hinkle responded to the ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges by tweeting, “This world is falling farther and farther away from God… All that can be done by believers is to continue to pray.” On Instagram, she posted an image that turned the Human Rights Campaign’s pro–marriage equality red equal sign logo into a cross. “This world may change, but Christ and His Word NEVER will,” Hinkle wrote in the caption. “My heart is that as Christians we don’t begin to throw a tantrum over what has been brought into law today, but we become that much more loving.” The caption also suggested that gay people are “lost, rejected, and abandoned” and that rainbows are “a constant reminder that no matter how corrupt this world becomes, He will never leave us or forsake us.”

Two years after she posted those messages on social media, Hinkle was named to the roster of the USWNT for a series of friendly matches. Just a few days before the first game, she declined the offer for “personal reasons.”

Given Hinkle’s outspoken anti-LGBTQ views, soccer fans speculated that her decision had something to do with the team’s plan to wear jerseys with rainbow-colored numbers in honor of Pride Month. This May, the 25-year-old Hinkle confirmed that suspicion, appearing on The 700 Club to explain the dilemma she faced when asked to wear the Pride jersey. “I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey. And I gave myself three days to just seek and pray and determine what He was asking of me to do in the situation,” she said on the show. “I knew in my spirit I was doing the right thing. I knew that I was being obedient.”

It would’ve been reasonable to assume that Hinkle, who plays for the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League, would never be called up to the USWNT again. She’d not only let down the national team by refusing to play: She’d also explicitly insulted gay and queer women, some of whom are the sport’s best players and most devoted fans.

On Wednesday, however, USWNT head coach Jill Ellis—who is married to a woman—put Hinkle on the roster for the upcoming Tournament of Nations. Hinkle accepted, tweeting, “God is good! Honored. Excited. Ready.” Starting on Friday, she’ll train alongside star forward Megan Rapinoe, an out lesbian; goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, who recently wished her Instagram followers a “Happy Pride, from my ‘Team’ to yours”; and possibly many other queer players. Hinkle’s addition to the team sends a tacit message to her teammates and the USWNT’s fans: Players with poisonous views are welcome here, so long as they help us win.

As fans drag U.S. Soccer for welcoming Hinkle into the fold, it’s worth noting that a men’s team would never face this kind of uproar for bringing on a homophobe. Male athletes who make anti-woman or anti-gay remarks are far from a rarity—they’re problematic faves whose bigotry women and queer sports fans must overlook to enjoy the game. Because women are more progressive on social issues than men, we expect women’s sports leagues to do much better.

Then again, there are far fewer out male athletes than female ones, making Hinkle’s call-up a workplace issue in addition to a moral one. (The only active out gay male athlete in a major North American team sport is Collin Martin of Major League Soccer’s Minnesota United FC.) When Hinkle decided to forgo her shot with the national team, she was telling her colleagues that their lives and loves repulsed her so much that she’d rather pass up the most prestigious position in her field than endorse their humanity. Wearing a rainbow number is hardly a political statement—there were no messages related to marriage rights, nondiscrimination laws, or protections for trans people attached to the players’ jerseys. It was merely a symbol of goodwill Hinkle could have worn to demonstrate her support for her teammates’ well-being without making any commentary on their legal rights. That apparently was too much for her to bear.

U.S. Soccer has come down against far better players for making statements that are far more benign. On Twitter, fans have pointed out that former USWNT goalie Hope Solo got a six-month ban for calling members of an opposing team “a bunch of cowards.” And when Rapinoe kneeled during the national anthem before a game in 2016 in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick’s police brutality protest, U.S. Soccer made a public statement: “As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.” A few months later, the league enacted a new policy that requires all players to “stand respectfully” during the anthem, making it the first American governing body to codify such a rule.

Meanwhile, Hinkle went on television to brag about her refusal to wear a jersey with rainbow numbers, publicly demeaning her co-workers and depicting U.S. Soccer as a den of sin. “If I never get a national team call-up again, that’s just part of His plan and that’s OK,” she said on The 700 Club. “Maybe this was why you were meant to play soccer: just to show other believers, like, to be obedient.”

By allowing Hinkle on the roster, Ellis and U.S. Soccer are compromising the unity that’s essential for any good team and snubbing a not-insignificant segment of their customer base. “The position we as LGBTQ soccer fans are being put in here is to have to choose between two aspects of our identities: our Americanness … and our queerness,” wrote Katelyn Best at Outsports. “Which is ultimately more important? Can I cheer for the U.S. to win another World Cup even with a player who doesn’t think I deserve love and acceptance for who I am on the field?”

Best was able to summon some empathy for Ellis, who is raising an adopted daughter with her wife, Betsy Stephenson, and whose career depends on her ability to assemble the best possible soccer team. She has no such compassion for U.S. Soccer, which is selling out its LGBTQ fans and employees for a possible trophy.

The Tournament of Nations isn’t a huge deal. It’s just a few friendlies. The Women’s World Cup is less than a year away, however, and if Hinkle plays well during these upcoming matches, it will be even harder for Ellis and U.S. Soccer to justify keeping her off that team.

If fans and big-name players—Abby Wambach, you big gay all-time leading goal scorer, I’m looking at you—decide they can’t abide Hinkle’s anti-gay mission, they need to start speaking out, and start encouraging fans stay away from the national team’s games in the Tournament of Nations. Maybe U.S. Soccer will change its mind about Hinkle once it realizes that nurturing outspoken homophobia in a very queer sport isn’t just bad for morale—it’s bad for business.

*Correction, July 20, 2018: This piece misstated that the 2015 Women’s World Cup was in China. It was in Canada.