Lacking in courage?
Soccer team distances itself from Christian player’s stand
Throughout her career, Christian soccer player Jaelene Daniels has consistently refused to wear jerseys with symbols of LGBTQ Pride.
One thing, however, has changed: The team Daniels plays for, the North Carolina Courage of the National Women’s Soccer League, is no longer living up to its name regarding the defender’s religious stance.
Daniels was a Parade All-American at Valor Christian High School in Colorado and was selected seventh overall out of Texas Tech in the 2015 NWSL college draft. Daniels led the team that drafted her, the Western New York Flash, to an NWSL title in 2016. After the team relocated to North Carolina and rebranded as the Courage in 2017, she was part of a back line that set a league record for fewest goals conceded in 2018, enabling North Carolina to post the league’s best regular-season record for the second straight year.
Rewind to 2018: Daniels—whose last name at the time was Hinkle—confirmed in a televised interview with The 700 Club that her Christian faith motivated her to decline an invitation to play for the U.S. Women’s National Team a year earlier. Daniels would have had to wear a Pride-themed jersey featuring a rainbow-colored number in a pair of exhibition matches in Scandinavia—something she could not, in good conscience, do.
After the 700 Club interview aired, Courage owner Steve Malik expressed support for Daniels’ stance: “Faith acted on in personal conviction harming no one else deserves respect just as much as creating a welcoming environment for all.”
Fast forward to late July: The Courage hosted its own Pride Night against the Washington Spirit. For the match, the players wore dark blue jerseys featuring a rainbow-colored version of the team’s ordinarily red, blue, and gold logo, a shield bearing the team’s name, and a snarling lioness.
Again, Daniels declined to wear a Pride-themed jersey. Unlike the Tampa Bay Rays pitchers who opted not to wear Pride-themed caps and jersey patches at the Major League Baseball team’s Pride Night back in June, however, Daniels didn’t have the option of wearing a uniform that differed from her teammates’.
Daniels chose to sit out the match against Washington. The Courage’s response was a stark contrast to its response to her interview with The 700 Club.
“While we’re disappointed with her choice,” the Courage told fans in a statement issued via ESPN, “we respect her right to make that decision for herself.”
In response to outcry from fans—and even some of Daniels’ teammates—the team apologized to its LGBTQ fans in December 2021 soon after luring Daniels out of a one-year retirement, during which she gave birth to a daughter.
“Not many clubs would make a signing for which they are forced to immediately beg for forgiveness,” MSN.com sportswriter Seth Vertelney observed.
The Courage ranks 10th out of 12 NWSL teams in attendance this season, averaging more than 1,200 fewer fans than it did in 2019 and 8 percent fewer fans than it did last year—all while the NWSL’s overall attendance has risen 20 percent from last season.
In fairness, the Courage wasn’t exactly selling out matches at 10,000-seat WakeMed Soccer Park before resigning Daniels. Still, many media outlets, fans, and Courage players directly attribute the sharp decline in attendance to the team’s decision to bring back Daniels.
Fans outside North Carolina aren’t thrilled with Daniels’ presence in the NWSL, either: On Aug. 5, in Daniels’ first game back after sitting out the Courage’s Pride Night, fans at Portland’s Providence Park greeted Daniels with a chorus of boos—just as they did in 2018 at her first match after her 700 Club interview aired. Those boos rained down even harder after Daniels converted a match-tying goal in the 85th minute, lifting the last-place Courage into a 3-3 draw with NWSL-leading Thorns FC.
Daniels, for her part, has tried to make clear that her refusal to wear Pride-themed jerseys does not come from a place of hate: Just as she had following her signing in late 2021, she issued her own statement in the wake of her decision to sit out the Courage’s Pride Night.
“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,” Daniels wrote. “I pray and firmly believe that my teammates know how much I cherish them, respect them, and love them.”
Still, that’s not enough for many Courage fans.
“For me, as a queer person, to be called homophobic—those several years, I had to be like, ‘I’m gay,’” Mary Pruter, the president of the Courage’s fan club, the Uproar, told Raleigh television station WUNC-TV.
Malik asserted then that both Christians and LGBTQ persons were welcome in the soccer world: “Pride and Faith Nights are not incompatible,” he tweeted at the time. (The Courage’s website reflects that the team did not schedule a Faith Night promotion this season.) It would be an act of real courage for Malik to say so again.
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