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  • Writer's pictureOllie Cad

The NWSL and Politics: The Divisive and Far-reaching Consequences of Intolerance in Women’s Soccer

On July 31st, the English Women’s National football team, the Lionesses, won the Euros final against Germany. UEFA declared the fan turnout for the final match a new record for women’s international games in Europe—the record-breaking 87,192 fans in attendance marked a meaningful moment in women’s soccer internationally.

The Lionesses hoist the trophy after winning the Euros against Germany at Wembley Stadium in London, England, July 31, 2022. Photo Credit: @Lionesses on Twitter

This monumental event, following the Canadian Women’s National Team's (CANWNT) win at the 2020 Olympics and the U.S. Women’s National Team’s (USWNT) victory at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, demonstrates a growing interest in the women’s game in an international level, revealing that women’s sports are not only a rich and untapped financial market, but also able to cultivate dedicated and diverse fanbases.


However, what happens when decisions within the dominant clubs and organizations are prejudiced and intolerant? How can the women’s game grow if the pillars holding its existence (tolerance, equality, acceptance, diversity) are ones that are being destroyed from inside the organizations?


One of the most prominent examples of how intolerance can clash with team chemistry and fan support is the divide that exists between the team's mission statement and the actual administrative actions of their front office. The North Carolina Courage (NCC) is one of twelve teams in the National Women’s Soccer League and their current common purpose is a commitment to ensuring that “in all of [their] actions and behaviors, [they] must demonstrate and confirm…mutual respect,” including “bring[ing] together people of different genders, age, races, faiths, ethnicities, sexual orientation, college affiliation, etc.”


However, when it comes to discussing women’s clubs and front office intolerance, this club is often immediately cited as one that perpetuates prejudices and actively lets down their fans and players. In 2017, NCC’s left back, Jaelene Daniels, denied her call up to the USWNT for "personal reasons" which were later revealed to be an issue with wearing the USWNT’s LGBTQ+ pride themed jerseys. In 2018, Jaelene confirmed the rumors about said conflict.


“I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey,” Hinkle said in an interview with the Christian talk show, The 700 Club.


This choice not only ensured Daniels would no longer be invited onto the USWNT roster but also left NCC fans feeling betrayed by the visible intolerance that their club’s front office was allowing to go unnoticed and unpunished.


Daniels’ subsequent retirement from professional football in 2020 didn’t leave the issue undiscussed for long, as she returned to the game shortly after for the NWSL 2022-23 season. The decision for NCC to allow her back on the team after the visible discomfort her beliefs caused both the fans and other players was heavily scrutinized. Why would this team allow a player to represent them when her publicly advertised beliefs were so different from their core mission as a club?

Photo Credit: @NWSL on Twitter

After Daniels’ re-signing was announced, NCC issued an apology to their fans:


"The decision to re-sign Jaelene was not made lightly and included significant conversations between organization leadership and Jaelene. The priority expressed in those conversations is the safety of our players and maintaining an inclusive, respectful space for the entire team"


However, this didn’t appease fans who continued to maintain the belief that the club was promoting a visible contradiction by allowing their front office to sign a player whose beliefs were so against the ones commonly held across the club. The fans weren’t the only group affected by this decision, as NCC players would soon make statements regarding their thoughts on the re-signing, specifically player Meritt Mathias who identifies as a member of the LGBTQ+ community.


“There are reasons why people aren’t here and haven’t wanted to spend their money or beliefs and that is up to them," Mathias said. "If this gets out there, I am a part of the community that has struggled with some of the choices that this club has made. They’ve made it very clear.”


When her re-signing was announced, Daniels released a written statement on Twitter commenting on her past choices:


"I remain committed to my faith and my desire for people to know that my love for them isn't based on their belief system or sexuality. I pray and firmly believe that my teammates know how much I cherish them, respect them and love them."


However, this issue wasn’t left dormant for long, and was brought up again on July 29, 2022, when Daniels decided to sit out of NCC’s scheduled pride night game to celebrate LGBTQ+ pride. While her withdrawing from the match was expected by fans, the reception was, of course, negative, leaving fans wondering why a front office would protect a player who is so diametrically opposed to the diversity they claim they professionally promote.


Fans are also noticing how Daniels’ presence on the team is affecting NCC's overall performance. After winning the NWSL preseason Challenge Cup, the team hasn’t won a game since June 11, 2022, and is at the bottom of the table with only 12 points. The overall tension between the fans, players, and front office as well as their consistently subpar performance has not gone unnoticed, and others are wondering whether or not they’re correlated.

A similar incident was flagged by Angel City FC (ACFC) fans. Leading up to their pride night match, midfielder Katie Cousins took to Instagram to repost a statement from the Tampa Bay Ray’s pitcher, Jason Adam, about his choice to not wear his team’s pride-themed jersey:


“I think a lot of guys decided that it’s just a lifestyle that maybe—not that they look down on anybody or think differently—it's just that maybe we don’t want to encourage it if we believe in Jesus, who’s encouraged us to live a lifestyle that would abstain from that behavior," Adams said in the statement reposted by Cousins.


Fans of the club, many of who identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, took to social media to criticize the ACFC for signing someone with views so opposite to what the club promoted in their pride celebrations. The club promptly went to Twitter to reassert its values and express its commitment to educating those in its immediate and far-reaching community.


These issues are not far and in between. Ongoing conversations surrounding the role of politics in sports have been a frequent topic of conversation in women’s soccer circles, from discussing equal pay to barring players from kneeling during the national anthem as a form of protest. So what’s the solution?


Many people argue that vetting players before signing them is unethical because of their right to hold personal beliefs beyond their affiliation to a club. But what happens when players publicly promote their views that are not only inconsistent with the club that promotes their voices, but also degrades and endangers their teammates who may be members of the communities they denounce?


While some assert that politics doesn’t belong in sports, women’s soccer as an evolving game exists because of politics—tolerance, acceptance, diversity, and open-mindedness are the pillars of the women’s game and are what propel the game in a market saturated by men. The ability for women to play soccer professionally and the continual fight to ensure equality on the field depends on an enduring commitment to fight for women’s spaces in the game.


However, a fight for women also must incorporate a commitment to intersectionality: creating spaces for women in sport means creating spaces for women of all races, nationalities, sexualities, and classes, as well as gender non-conforming individuals and transgender players and fans alike. When players publicly advertise their intolerance, they’re not just saying their opinion, but also subjecting their teammates and fans to an opinion that may go as far to be contradictory to their existence and humanity. As we’ve seen with the NCC, performance can depend both on player morale and trust in the front office, and when those factors don’t exist it can create a space where not even fans feel comfortable showing their support.


Washington Spirit fans wave pride flags during their team's match. Photo courtesy of Geoff Burke/USA TODAY Sports

It’s difficult for women’s clubs to maintain their integrity when they operate in a system that has and continues to be dominated by men and relies on misogynistic pedagogies. There needs to be a balance between protecting fans and players and ensuring that clubs don’t purchase acceptance from more conservative outlets and industries by allowing for more intolerant views to be upheld. Sports praxis must seek to regulate their policies around acceptance—allowing players to sit out games because of their religious views not only promotes a culture of selective intolerance but also means less soccer is ultimately being played, and that’s what we’re here for.


If a player refuses to wear an LGBTQ+ themed jersey and turns down an amazing opportunity of playing on an international stage, do they really have the level of professionalism enough to play soccer professionally?


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