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U.S. soccer’s handling of homophobic player was mismanaged from the start

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The women national team’s decision to call up Jaelene Hinkle and then cut her abruptly left many questions unanswered and had LGBTQ fans scratching their heads.

Jaelene Hinkle with the U.S. women’s team in 2015.
AP

For what feels like much of the summer, controversy has roiled the U.S. women’s national soccer team — not because of their performance on the field, but around the question of what to do about one player on the fringes of the team, Jaelene Hinkle.

At the end of May, Hinkle appeared on “The 700 Club” and confirmed that a June 2017 decision to turn down a call from the national team was based on a religious opposition to wearing a jersey with a Pride-themed rainbow number. She was booed vociferously in Portland, where she played with her club, the North Carolina Courage, shortly after that segment aired, and has gotten a similar reception in other cities since then.

So when Hinkle got another chance with the national team in July, fans were stunned. Many felt the decision showed all of USSF’s Pride-related initiatives were just about making money* (see correction at end).

I personally found myself wrestling with the question of whether I could support a U.S. team with Hinkle on it. USSF was proclaiming itself an ally of the LGBTQ community with one hand, and giving a player with openly homophobic views a chance to compete at the sport’s highest level with the other.

Less than a week into the outrage, things got strange when the team announced Hinkle had been cut from the final 23-player roster after a few days of training camp. In a context divorced from this particular controversy, there’s nothing unusual about a player being brought into camp but not making the roster, and indeed, USSF and head coach Jill Ellis maintain both the call-up and the cut were strictly performance-related decisions.

We may never know exactly what happened behind the scenes, but there are two overarching, complementary truths here: the first is that U.S. Soccer looks to have mismanaged both the decision-making and the messaging here. The second is that in many ways, this was an impossible situation for the team, one with no obvious right answers.

Those truths, in turn, generate questions whose applications go far beyond Hinkle and the women’s national team. The hurt and outrage felt by fans is real and justified, but the situation is far from black and white — and calls to simply ban Hinkle from the national team miss some important nuances.

An on-field decision?

From USSF, the messaging has been consistent that both Hinkle’s call-up and her subsequent cut were purely performance-related decisions. But from an outside perspective, that explanation is hard to swallow.

Bringing Hinkle in made a lot of sense, from a soccer-related point of view. She’s a naturally left-sided defender who fits coach Jill Ellis’s desired profile for an outside back: in short, a speedy player who can contribute as much going forward, in running up the wings to cross into the box, as she can defensively.

Followers of the NWSL broadly agree she’s been the best left back in the league this season. On top of her ability, there’s the fact that Ellis has lamented in the past how thin her options are at that position, to the point where forwards like Sofia Huerta and Chioma Ubogagu have been called in as defenders (forward Crystal Dunn wound up playing there in the Tournament of Nations).

Given all that, did Hinkle really go into camp and perform so badly she couldn’t even earn a spot on the bench?

Of course, Ellis, like many coaches, frequently makes on-field decisions outsiders find inscrutable. And it’s true that we don’t know what happened in camp. It’s not unreasonable, however, to speculate that there may have been other factors at play.

The most straightforward explanation for the call and subsequent cut may be — and I’m stressing the may there, because this is speculation on my part — that USSF brought Hinkle back in to avoid litigation. The federation declined to comment on that question, but according to an employment lawyer I spoke with (who asked to remain anonymous), based on what we know about Hinkle’s situation, there is reason to believe she may have had a case, had she chosen to sue.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prevents employers from firing or refusing to hire someone because of their religious beliefs. The relevant issue here is whether Hinkle was being kept out of the national team as a result of deciding not to play in games where the team planned to wear rainbow numbers.

It was essentially the consensus among fans and media that in turning down the call-up she got in June 2017, Hinkle was probably giving up her national team career for good. She herself seemed to know that was at least a very real possibility, telling “The 700 Club,” “I’m essentially giving up the one dream little girls dream about ... it was very disappointing.”

The team may have had a couple of reasons to withhold future call-ups. Beyond the presumed potential for locker-room conflict in a sport where being queer is essentially universally accepted as normal, there’s a simple issue of reliability: Hinkle didn’t just turn down the call up, but initially accepted it and then rescinded after finding out about the rainbow numbers. If a player can’t necessarily be counted on to show up when they say they will, does it make sense for the team to keep calling them in?

When Hinkle didn’t get another chance in any of the numerous friendlies the national team played throughout the rest of 2017, despite continuing to excel in the NWSL, the speculation that her national team career was over seemed to have been confirmed.

However, Hinkle didn’t just arbitrarily decide not to show up. She had a very specific, clearly defined reason for doing so — one that’s protected under the law due to its religious justification. The fact that she voluntarily withdrew from that June camp doesn’t mean that it would be legal for USSF to blacklist her from future camps.

In short, if it were possible to prove that she was being kept out of the team because of that decision, she could have a claim to religious discrimination under Title VII. Clearly, given the subjective nature of any coaching assessment, it would be very difficult for her to prove that’s what happened — but that’s also exactly why calling her in for a training camp would seem to indemnify the federation against claims of discrimination.

Hinkle may not have won any potential lawsuit against the federation, but even so, having to go to court over this would probably be a nightmare scenario for USSF. It’s easy to imagine such a case turning into a lightning rod in the culture war, especially in the current political climate. Having called her in and being able to say the coaching staff assessed her performance in person, USSF looks a lot safer from potential litigation than it might have otherwise.

USA Women v Sweden Women - International Friendly
Jaelene Hinkle boycotted the U.S.-Sweden 2017 match because the Americans wore rainbow-colored numbers.
Photo by Nils Petter Nilsson/Ombrello/Getty Images

The players’ angle

One of the major issues under discussion by fans and media is a presumption that queer players might feel uncomfortable around a teammate who had professed homophobic beliefs. Women’s soccer is, in general, a very safe space for members of the LGBTQ community, both in the stands and in the locker room. The team has had a number of openly gay players on its roster throughout its history, and Ellis herself is married to a woman.

According to a source within the federation, Ellis spoke to team leaders, including at least one queer-identifying player, before calling Hinkle in, and those players were OK with the decision to give her a chance. Furthermore, according to USSF sources, there was no conflict or tension in the camp as a result of Hinkle’s presence.

It’s difficult for many outside observers who belong to the LGBTQ community, myself included, to envision being perfectly content to play and share a locker room with someone who, at the end of the day, doesn’t think we deserve the same rights as she does. On the other hand, I’ve never played a sport professionally, and I can’t pretend to know what that experience is like.

Joanna Lohman, an openly gay player for the Washington Spirit, doesn’t play for the national team and doesn’t know Hinkle, but I wanted to get her perspective, as someone who has played on many different teams in multiple countries over a 12-year professional career — including, occasionally, with teammates who weren’t necessarily allies of the LGBTQ community.

”From a locker room perspective,” she said, “I’ve never once felt uncomfortable. I’ve always lived my life completely authentically and never once has anyone said anything to me in a negative way.”

”There are people on my team that have completely different backgrounds or different religions,” she says. On the field and in the locker room, she says, that’s never been an issue for her — and she’s a player who’s both visibly queer and outspoken about that identity.

Of course, the views of current USWNT players who didn’t have an issue with Hinkle being brought in don’t necessarily represent a consensus within the team. Indeed, Stephanie Yang spoke with a former USWNT player who said, “I think there are people there that are [upset]” within the team, but may not feel comfortable voicing objections publicly. It should also be noted that there’s precedent for the federation restricting its players’ speech on controversial issues: in 2017, it was not the NFL, but USSF, that became the first American governing body to require athletes to stand for the national anthem, after Megan Rapinoe knelt before a friendly against Thailand.

I don’t want to speculate about which opinion represents a majority, if there is one on the issue. It does, however, seem safe to say that queer fans, largely united in opposition to Hinkle’s call-up, have a different perspective than players, at least some of whom didn’t think her views warranted barring her from the team outright.

In any case, professional athletes of all stripes often have to put aside deep differences when they step onto the field. NFL players who have participated in anthem protests play alongside teammates who support Donald Trump. Both the desire to compete at a high level and the mere fact of being around a teammate on a daily basis change the dynamic in a way that people outside a team might not understand.

As Lohman says, “it’s really hard to hate someone you see every single day, and when you put a human face to a label.”

Open questions

Writing this story only left me more conflicted. I am still torn between two opposing thoughts: on one hand, if some of the LGBTQ people who would actually be working with Hinkle on the national team say they don’t or wouldn’t have an issue with her presence, who am I to say they’re wrong? On the other hand, I believe the national team is, or should be, about more than winning tournaments—these people are tasked with representing our country, and I don’t want someone who doesn’t believe all Americans deserve equal rights representing my country.

Here is the only conclusion I can come to: Ultimately this is not about Jaelene Hinkle, but about who we are, right now, as a society.

As much as I believe bigotry in any form is inexcusable, as much as I believe the “The 700 Club” segment Hinkle appeared in was intended to set the LGBTQ community back, as much as it hurts me and many people I know to think about a homophobic player representing my country in the sport I love, at the end of the day, this is one person.

The question is not whether this particular athlete deserves this opportunity, but about why she holds the bigoted beliefs she does — and why millions of other people still share those beliefs. She doesn’t deserve to be shielded from criticism for her words and actions. But at the same time, she is not an island. She’s one of many, many people who still think this way.

The fact that there’s even the question of a legal issue is telling, too. We still live in a country where homophobia has legal protection under certain circumstances. That’s a much, much bigger issue than Hinkle or U.S. Soccer.

Soccer is a refuge for many in the LGBTQ community, including me. Those kinds of spaces are crucial, often literally in life-or-death terms, to people who belong to marginalized groups.

But they are also not enough. The impulse to frame this issue in black and white, to demand Hinkle be barred from the national team or even fired from her club for her beliefs comes from a feeling of powerlessness, I think — powerlessness over the world as a whole, which has been so cruel to so many of us. It feels especially cruel when that world intrudes on a space we use as a refuge.

Bigotry is still killing us, literally, but Hinkle is as much a symptom of its pervasiveness as she is a perpetrator. Her views, ultimately, are merely those of a person who has not thought very deeply or reflected very hard on what she was raised to believe.

So here’s where I get sanctimonious, for a moment: I don’t know whether Hinkle herself will ever change her mind, but I know that the work of changing minds like hers belongs to other straight people, especially straight Christians.

LGBTQ soccer fans are completely justified in booing her wherever she goes, but we also need to recognize that public outrage directed at this one person from afar won’t move the needle. That’s something that has to happen elsewhere, face to face, one person at a time. And we’ve got a long, long way to go.

Katelyn Best is a writer and journalist in Portland, Oregon, and an Outsports contributor. She covers the Portland Thorns for Stumptown Footy, and her work has appeared in Portland Monthly, Excelle Sports, ESPNW, and elsewhere. She can be reached via her website: kabest.me or on Twitter: https://twitter.com/BestKabes

*Correction: According to USSF, net proceeds from all Pride-related merchandise went to You Can Play.