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North Carolina Courage defender Jaelene Daniels, who previously declined to play for the U.S. national team in a Pride Month jersey, refused to play for her club on Pride Night.
The Courage and Washington Spirit played to a 3-3 tie on Friday night in the National Women's Soccer League, and in a match preceded by an inaugural Pride Festival, a celebration of the LGBTQ+ community. The Courage also wore rainbow-themed jerseys.
"Jaelene will not be rostered tonight as she has made the decision to not wear our Pride jersey," a Courage spokeswoman said in a statement hours before the 7:30 p.m. kickoff.
"While we're disappointed with her choice, we respect her right to make that decision for herself," the statement continued. "We're excited to celebrate the LGBTQIA+ community with our fans, players and staff tonight and look forward to hosting our first ever Pride Festival before kickoff."
Daniels (née Hinkle) has not yet explained her decision.
In 2018, a year after turning down the USWNT call-up, she said that, as a devout Christian, she “felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear” the Pride jersey. To LGBTQ+ fans and fellow players, her message and beliefs were clear. USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris later called her "homophobic" and intolerant, and wrote: "You don’t belong in a sport that aims to unite and bring people together."
Daniels retired in 2020 at age 27, but re-signed with the Courage last December. The team's biggest supporters group, The Uproar, called the signing "unacceptable." The blowback was fierce, and the club felt the need to apologize to its fans.
"We as a club acknowledge the impact this announcement has on our community," the Courage said in a statement responding to the outcry. "We've spent the past few days reading your messages and reflecting on our actions. We are very sorry to all those we have hurt, especially those within the LGBTQIA+ community."
Daniels indirectly addressed the criticism in a statement of her own. "I believe everyone regardless of gender, ethnicity, beliefs or abilities is worth of dignity, value and love," she wrote, in part. "My beliefs may call me to live differently, but my love runs deep for all."
"Over the course of this season, I look forward to meeting, speaking and growing with more of you — the fans — as this club continues to be one of the best in the world on and off the field," she concluded. But according to local reporters, she has not been made available by the club to speak to media.
She had played in all nine of the Courage's previous 2022 games — six times as a starter, and three off the bench. But the team (2-5-2) has struggled, and the atmosphere around the club has seemingly frayed. Attendance has declined, and some fans cite the signing of Daniels as a reason why.
"The fan support has wavered," Merritt Mathias, a Courage defender since 2018, admitted in May. "And there are reasons for that. And there are reasons why people aren’t here and haven’t wanted to spend their money or beliefs, and that is up to them.
"I am a part of the community that has struggled with some of the choices that this club has made," she continued. After encouraging fans to "come back" and support the club, she acknowledged that the community itself hadn't felt supported by the club.
"I don’t think that has been any secret," Mathias continued. "We didn’t have a Pride Night for three years, we didn’t wear a jersey. Everyone knows all these things, and I think bringing back Jaelene [Daniels] was a decision made by the club and as a player who is part of the community, you have to work through those struggles, but that is what a team is about. You have to be able to embrace people of all different religions, of all different views, of all different backgrounds."
When they re-signed Daniels, the Courage said in their statement that "Jaelene and organization leadership have a productive conversation about the expectations we have set for our entire team, in and out of the locker room, and she will continue to uphold the Courage's standards of respect and inclusion without reservation."
They outlined an "immediate plan" to "remedy the harm," which included promises to support Pride events and wear Pride jerseys. (The team held their first Pride Night in 2021, when Daniels was not with the team.) A month later, team president Francie Gottsegen told reporters: “We hope to win back those fans that we may have alienated.”
After Friday's match, Courage head coach Sean Nahas said he hoped that Daniels' decision wouldn't distract from the celebration of the team's LGBTQ+ players.
“What we have to remember is, it’s the second time that they’ve worn those jerseys and I know how powerful it was for them, and how much it means for them," he said. "And my number one thing was, nothing is going to come in between that, because that’s important to them and that means something to them, and I stood by that."