Every team in the National Women’s Soccer League holds a Pride night during the month of June to celebrate the LGBTQ community.
Every team, that is, except for the Washington Spirit.
The team is owned by Bill Lynch, whose conservative politics have often been a source of controversy in a league known for its progressive values. Even as professional sports franchises across the country improve and expand their relationships with their LGBTQ fans, year after year Lynch’s team has refused to stage an officially sanctioned Pride Night.
So for the last four years, the Spirit Squadron, the main fan club for the team, has held a Pride Night of their own.
“The majority of this fanbase is LGBTQ. We want everybody to know they’re welcome in our section, or even at the [Maryland SoccerPlex] in general,” Megan Wesson, one of the leaders of the Squad, told ThinkProgress during a Spirit game last Saturday night.
“We want everyone to feel welcome and loved and like everyone is okay. We want everyone to enjoy themselves and feel comfortable and safe.”
The Squadron, which describes itself as an “island of misfit toys,” is made up of dozens of die-hard fans, many of whom travel three hours or more to attend each game. They sit in the general admission section of the 4,000-seat Maryland SoccerPlex, and keep the energy level high throughout the games, with loud chants and drum beats.
The messaging on the Squad’s Pride Night banner — WE are proud of OUR Pride Night —can be read as a literal sign of the palpable tension between the Spirit Squadron and Spirit management. Not only have the Spirit failed to hold an official Pride Night, but they were also the only NWSL team that didn’t openly celebrate marriage equality after the landmark Supreme Court decision in June of 2015.
Fans’ frustration gave way to fury in September when Lynch made the decision to play the national anthem before the players came onto the field, thereby preventing Megan Rapinoe of the visiting Seattle Reign from kneeling while the anthem was played.
At the time, Rapinoe was kneeling during the anthem in solidarity with NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick. She said that as a lesbian, she understood what it felt like to be discriminated against by the people who were supposed to be protecting you.
Lynch released a statement during that game saying he’d made that decision to prevent Rapinoe from “hijacking our organization’s event.”
Needless to say, this did not go over well with the Spirit’s progressive fanbase.
“I am also a lesbian. I personally believe this was a homophobic statement from Bill Lynch,” Melissa, a veteran who at the time was a member of the Squadron, told ThinkProgress. “He’s the only owner that doesn’t support Pride night, so you can’t tell me that his belief about Rapinoe is not connected to homophobia, you just can’t.”
Rapinoe certainly thought Melissa was on the right track.
“I do think that Bill Lynch is homophobic,” Rapinoe told reporters after the game.
Wesson said that many Squadron members left the SoccerPlex that night in tears, and not because the Spirit won and clenched a home playoff game.
“The remaining members are here for the players, the players who are LGBTQ, those out in public and those not out in public.”
The Spirit players were upset as well, and days after the game, they released a statement objecting to Lynch’s anthem decision. Despite making it all the way to the NWSL final, things did not calm down for the Spirit during the offseason, either. Amid Washington Post reports that players were unhappy with “management in general,” the team’s two most prominent players left — Ali Krieger was traded to the Orlando Pride and Crystal Dunn decided to sign with a team in Europe.
That only widened the riff between fans and management.
Wesson said that the Squadron is noticeably smaller this season — Melissa, among others, has not returned. While it seems many squad members left because of the departures of Krieger and Dunn, Wesson admitted it’s hard to separate those losses from the fall-out of “anthemgate.” It’s all part of the same thread.
“Yeah, we’re obviously smaller. We definitely have people who haven’t come back, who are not interested in the front office,” Wesson said. “The remaining members are here for the players, the players who are LGBTQ, those out in public and those not out in public. We focus on them and we are the voice they may or may not have.”
Because of the turmoil over the last year, the Spirit Squadron hope that this year’s Pride Night is their biggest yet. The group advertised it on social media and with a giant banner at Saturday’s game, and for the first time they are selling t-shirts, which will read in rainbow lettering, “Everyone is welcome here. We’re family. #SpiritSquadron.”
The Squad is donating $5 from every t-shirt sale to the Human Rights Campaign, in honor of Spirit player Joanna Lohman’s “Playing for Pride” campaign. Lohman, an openly gay Spirit player, is out for the season with a torn ACL.
“I’m really close to the Spirit Squadron, so it means so much to me,” Lohman told ThinkProgress. “I know many of us, we want to stand up not just for the gay community, but for human rights in general. It speaks volumes to who they are as individuals.”
Lohman, who has a close relationship with Spirit management, said she’s encouraged by the fact that the team isn’t trying to “downplay” the Spirit Squadron’s Pride Night, because LGBTQ visibility is extremely important.
“I think it helps for everyone to have role models and a community to belong to,” she said. “It’s important that everyone feels safe walking into the SoccerPlex.”
In a statement to ThinkProgress, Spirit President Chris Hummer did not address the lack of official Spirit Pride Night events. However, he did offer the organization’s support for the Squadron.
“We support all of our fans taking initiatives in putting together group outings with themes they feel will draw more of their friends and family to attend and enjoy a game,” Hummer said. “We’ve been doing all we can to help the Squadron grow, and they have our full support.”
On the field, there’s reason for Spirit fans to remain optimistic. Last month, 19-year-old Mallory Pugh—almost unanimously hyped as the future of women’s soccer in the United States—decided to leave UCLA after only one semester and turn professional. She signed with the Spirit, and has brought a much-needed spark to the team.
The Spirit Squadron are hoping their Pride Night this month will give the Spirit’s LGBTQ fans and players a reason to hope off of the field, too.
“It’s more important for us to do it this year, because if the team isn’t going to do it, then we should do it for the people who are part of this congregation and fans,” Wesson said.
“Everyone should have a voice.”