The U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team has been getting a lot of attention and well-deserved adulation over the past 10 days, ever since they won their second consecutive Women’s World Cup in dominant fashion over the Netherlands in Lyon, France. But as night must follow day, any praise for loud, outspoken women must be counterbalanced with bad-faith, ill-informed criticism.
You’ve probably heard the complaints by now: They’ve partied too hard; they sign autographs dismissively; they say the word “fuck” an awful lot. But this week, another narrative emerged: they’re anti-Christian.
This latest attack surfaced when a conservative activist on Twitter, Ekeocha Obianuju, shared the story of Jaelene Hinkle, a defender in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) who refused to play with the U.S. national team in 2017 when she found out she would have to wear a jersey honoring LGBTQ Pride month.
“Apparently, the US women’s Football team is not a very welcoming place for Christians,” Ekeocha wrote in a tweet that went viral.
This quickly led to conservative outlets publishing articles like this one in the Washington Examiner with the headline “While Megan Rapinoe is celebrated, a Christian player got pushed off the USWNT for not being woke enough.” But it didn’t take long for one prominent member of the team, backup goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, to speak out against this notion.
“Hinkle, our team is about inclusion. Your religion was never the problem. The problem is your intolerance and you are homophobic. You don’t belong in a sport that aims to unite and bring people together,” Harris wrote on Twitter. “You would never fit into our pack or what this team stands for.”
Later, Harris added, “This is actually an insult to the Christians on our team.”
Don’t you dare say our team is ‘not a welcoming place for Christians’. You weren’t around long enough to know what this team stood for. This is actually an insult to the Christians on our team. Same on you.
— Ashlyn Harris (@Ashlyn_Harris) July 15, 2019
Harris’s tweets followed those of Kyle Krieger, the brother of Harris’s fiancée and USWNT teammate, Ali Krieger.
“As someone close to the team, I know this is false. The players have an inclusive bible study, they pray before and after the WC games, and they are open to whatever faith you follow. Not all Christians are bigots. Hinkle, on the other hand, hides her bigotry behind her faith,” Krieger tweeted.
Now, it is worth noting that it was Ekeocha, not Hinkle, who explicitly stated the USWNT was not a welcoming place for Christians. However, Hinkle has openly portrayed herself as a martyr for stepping away from the team in 2017 because apparently God spoke to her and told her that she would be defying her religion if she wore a jersey that supported the LGBTQ community.
“I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey,” Hinkle told CBN at the time. “And so I gave myself three days to just seek and pray and determine what He was asking me to do in this position.”
As both Harris and Krieger noted in their tweets, it is false bordering on comical to paint the USWNT as being anti-Christian. Many players on the USWNT are extremely vocal about their Christian faith. There is a group — including Moe Brian, Crystal Dunn, Allie Long, Mallory Pugh, Jessica McDonald, Emily Sonnet, Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz, Alyssa Naeher, Alex Morgan, and Kelley O’Hara — who kneel in a prayer circle in the middle of the field after every game. After they won the World Cup, Brian posted a long note on Instagram that began by thanking God, and Heath and Ertz both shared messages that said, “glory to God.”
Christianity is a very visible part of the USWNT. So too, however, is support of the LGBTQ community. Multiple members of the team are open about being in same-sex relationships — including head coach Jill Ellis, co-captain Megan Rapinoe, Harris, Krieger, Tierna Davidson, Adriana Franch, and Kelley O’Hara. And a large portion of the fan base in women’s soccer is LGBTQ as well. When Hinkle refused to even put on a jersey with rainbow-colored numbers on it, it was a clear rejection of the very humanity of the queer community. That isn’t faith. That’s hate.
Hinkle has long been open on social media about her homophobia — she was against the legalization of same-sex marriage — and ever since she refused to play for the national team in her first call-up in 2017, there has been speculation by many in the conservative community that the only reason she isn’t on the team is because of her anti-LGBTQ views.
There’s no real way to know if that’s the case, though. Even Harris would not be privy to the full extent of that decision-making process.
Hinkle has only been called up to a national team camp once since 2017, and she was only there for a few days before being cut. Ellis has repeatedly said the decision to exclude Hinkle was based on her lack of versatility — she only plays left back — and experience level. It’s about soccer, she says, not beliefs.
“If you look across the back line, all of those players can play at least two positions,” Ellis said, as reported by Yahoo Sports.
“One of the things our staff and I do is, we go through worst-case scenarios over and over and over again,” Ellis continued. “So looking at depth and versatility is a big part. And it becomes harder, I think, for a player that plays one position … a player that’s locked to one position — I do think that’s part of the decision-making.”
But team chemistry plays a part in these selections, too. As it should. The World Cup is a grueling affair. Relationships are tested. The media scrutiny is at all-time high. Trust is paramount. Hinkle was a bubble player already, meaning her inclusion on the roster was far from a sure thing. Harris’s tweets this week made it clear that there is tension between Hinkle and some members of the team, which is understandable given that she openly wants to deny the right for her teammates and coach to marry the person that they love.
This doesn’t mean that everyone on the team feels animosity towards Hinkle. Hinkle plays with a few members of the USWNT on the North Carolina Courage, the team that won the NWSL championship last season. Clearly she can co-exist, and even thrive, as a part of a diverse locker room.
McDonald, a teammate of Hinkle’s on the Courage and a member of the USWNT, came to Hinkle’s defense last year after the CBN interview was released. In a recent social media post, McDonald referred to Hinkle as her “best friend.” But while McDonald is also very open about her Christianity, she is supportive of LGBTQ equality and seems to be close with all of her teammates. This week, as the controversy around Hinkle was erupting, McDonald posted a photo on Instagram of her son holding the World Cup trophy and getting kissed by Rapinoe.
That, more than anything, proves what Harris and Krieger were saying this week: The USWNT is a welcoming group. The only caveat is, the love and respect has to be mutual.