I am a huge fan of our US national women’s soccer team. I have been following our women’s national team for nearly twenty years. Every four years I organize my summer schedule to make sure I have time to watch them compete in the Women’s World Cup. I’ve been thrilled to watch the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) since its establishment in 2012, providing women with new opportunities to play professional soccer. I have season tickets for my local NWSL team, the Washington Spirit. I love attending these games.
Along with the soccer and seeing women have the freedom to excel, I love the way soccer provides me a break from the divisiveness of today’s politics, which seems, day by day, to be encroaching on every part of our public life.
For example, in 2015, when I organized Women’s World Cup watch parties at a restaurant in Menlo Park, CA, via the social network Nextdoor.com, complete strangers gathered game after game for Mexican food, beer, and the beautiful game. The soccer fans who came were a truly diverse group—politically, religiously diverse. Our differences did not matter an iota. We were a group of Americans enjoying soccer and rooting together for our US Women’s National Team. It was an environment in which everyone was welcome. It’s the same at Washington Spirit games, where I know nothing of the politics of my fellow fans. Instead, all together, we enjoy great soccer and root for our team.
This is why I am so worried by the recent use of sports as a mechanism to expand the sexual revolution or other political agendas. Sports are one of the last bastions of civility and inclusivity in America. We need to be vigilant to protect the shared, inclusive nature of sports, especially when our national teams represent our country in international play.
Politics Enters Soccer
The cacophony of America’s terribly bitter political fights has been, until recently, far removed from women’s soccer at both the national and professional levels. Yet now the divisiveness of American politics is spilling from cable TV onto the soccer field.
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick, who protested by kneeling during the national anthem at football games, inspired a similar controversy on the field of the Washington Spirit. I was sad and felt alienated from my delight in women’s soccer when football’s politics spread into soccer.
This year I was perplexed when, in May, I saw a US Soccer announcement that “In recognition of LGBTQ Pride month” our national women’s and men’s soccer teams would wear special “Pride” jerseys during international play in June. The jerseys feature rainbow colors on the individual player numbers.
Right away I wondered what would happen to players who might simply want to play for the national team without wearing the special rainbow-numbered jersey. Last week one player selected for our Women’s National Team roster, Jaelene Hinkle, withdrew from the two games scheduled this month, against Sweden and Norway. Hinkle, a Christian, cited “personal reasons.”
Is Hinkle a hater? It doesn’t seem so. After the 2015 Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, she wrote, “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. That through our love, the lost, rejected, and abandoned find Christ."
Hinkle is, if anything, a consummate team player, when given the opportunity. She has been a soccer star on her high school, college, and now professional teams, and made it onto the national team in 2015. It is nearly unheard of for a player to receive this honor and then turn down such an opportunity, not least of all for a professional athlete such as Hinkle whose career off the national team is soccer as well; she plays for the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL.
The opportunity to play on the US Women’s National Team is an achievement attained by very few of our top players. This opportunity should be open fully and with fairness to all, no matter their political views.
National Sports Should Unite, Not Divide
As an American, I am proud of our US Women’s National Team. Our national sports teams should represent our whole nation, as one, without requiring anyone to advocate for specialized political causes as a precondition of participation. They shouldn’t take a side on political questions over which Americans are reasonably divided. The colors that unite us are red, white, and blue.
In addition to requiring its players to wear the special rainbow-numbered jerseys in “recognition of LGBTQ Pride month,” US Soccer is raising money for the You Can Play project by selling rainbow jerseys as well as ironically named “One Nation. One Team.” hats with rainbow lettering. You Can Play advocates that “Locker rooms should be safe and sports venues should be free from homophobia. Athletes should be judged on talent, heart and work ethic, not sexual orientation and/or gender identity.”
This is entirely correct. Our locker rooms and sports venues should be free of all fear and ill treatment. This means that they should include those who celebrate “LGBTQ Pride month” and those whose sexual politics do not align with “LGBTQ Pride month.” I wholeheartedly endorse the view of You Can Play that “Athletes should be judged on talent, heart, and work ethic.” I just wish it applied to Jaelene Hinkle.
Sports should encourage the exercise of civility. In stepping onto the field or into the stands, we should agree to disagree about a wide range of personal and political issues. This is not just to be polite. It is to ensure that all are welcome in our national and professional sports. Americans need a place where they can set aside their partisan differences and just be Americans. Our divided, bitter nation desperately needs truly inclusive civility.
When we all stand together for the national anthem, we are together defending the right to disagree. When all are allowed to play, we are truly inclusive. I root for all of the players regardless of their personal sexual politics.
America has plenty of football already. Let’s not turn our soccer teams into political footballs. Let’s keep our national teams, like the soccer ball, well-rounded. One Nation. One Team. Inclusive. Red, white, and blue.
Jennifer S. Bryson, PhD, divides her time between being Director of Operations at the Center for Islam and Religious Freedom and rooting for our US Women’s National Team as well as the Washington Spirit.