She is the most polarizing player in U.S. women’s soccer, and she is not even on the U.S. women’s soccer team.
No, it’s not Hope Solo.
Jaelene Hinkle was cut this week from the final 23 for Team USA’s upcoming tournament. These sort of roster changes happen all the time. Hinkle is not Alex Morgan or Carli Lloyd. She’s a left back.
However, Hinkle is the player who declined to play on the national team last year because she is a devout Christian and the U.S. wore rainbow-colored numbers on their jerseys to celebrate Pride Month. For her, it was a choice of conscience and faith. For many in the LGBTQ community, and elsewhere, it was a disgraceful show of homophobia. There was debate in the soccer community about whether she would ever get another shot at the national team, and Hinkle herself accepted that her decision may cost her a childhood dream.
On July 18, however, she got a call-up. And the reaction was fierce.
“Kick Her Off” screamed one Slate headline. “By giving Jaelene Hinkle a roster spot, U.S. Soccer sold out its LGBTQ fans and players for a better shot at the Women’s World Cup.” It went on to accuse head coach Jill Ellis, who is married to a woman, of “compromising the unity that’s essential for any good team and snubbing a not-insignificant segment of their customer base.”
Monday, five days after being added to the training camp roster, she was cut. But why?
According to a U.S. soccer spokesperson, “It was based on performance.” Yet, Hinkle plays a position of need for the national team. And according to her NWSL coach on the North Carolina Courage, Hinkle is “the best left back in the league by a country mile.”
This is not an outlandish opinion, even coming from Hinkle’s own coach. Katelyn Best, who has written eloquently and convincingly as a critic of Hinkle’s decision last year, still calls her “hands down the best left back in the league this season.”
Courage coach Paul Riley, in an interview Tuesday with Yahoo Sports, said Hinkle “should be on the roster for the national team. She’s good enough, intelligent enough, quick enough.” He further said it was “frustrating” how quickly the decision was made. “I don’t know how you can make the decision in two days,” he said. “I would have preferred for [Ellis] to keep them all or not bring her in the first place.”
So was this truly a soccer decision? Riley says he’s sure it was.
Others will likely disagree. Best broaches the possibility that the call-up was simply to stem any belief that Hinkle had been blackballed. Then the ultimate decision was to stem the backlash. In this scenario, Ellis was trying to appease everyone. There’s also a more banal scenario: Hinkle didn’t have a great tryout.
Anything’s possible in a social media age when truth is subjective, and this is the problem that Ellis will continue to face. She could have gotten credit for bringing Hinkle back after being snubbed, but instead she’s in a no-win situation. Put Hinkle on the team and it will be seen as a shot at the LGBTQ community. Leave her off the team and it will be seen as a shot at the Christian community. And it’s important to remember these communities are not of one mind about this. Some will cheer for the team whether or not Hinkle is on it. Others will see her as the very reason to cheer for the team, or the very reason to boycott it.
A source close to the national team says there was no revolt about Hinkle’s call-up, and there was no disruption or distraction during her short time with the group. That’s not to say that every player is fine with her refusal to wear the jersey – that’s highly unlikely – but it is a good soccer sign that Hinkle could fit in as she has in North Carolina (which is the best team in the league, thanks in part to its star left back).
Riley says that “nothing at all” has troubled him about coaching Hinkle. “She’s an easy person to coach,” he says. “A learner. A motivated player.” Keep in mind that Hinkle played on Pride Night for the Courage, and obviously she has not refused to play alongside LGBTQ players. Nor do we see any evidence that any player has refused to play alongside her.
This week’s controversy will pass. It’s not a World Cup year. However, next year most definitely is, and Ellis will have to pick the very best players for the pursuit of the top prize in France. Hinkle will likely make the coach’s decision even more difficult. She is entering her prime, and improving rapidly. Riley, for his part, says he “hopes she gets more of a chance next year.”
“She’s gone to another level,” the Courage coach says. “She’s knocking Marta, knocking Alex Morgan, knocking [Megan] Rapinoe. She’s got a lot more to offer.”
Several days ago, Anthony DiCicco, son of the legendary late national team coach Tony DiCicco, tweeted this about Hinkle: “I pray for her to find empathy. Love is Love. No group has ever demonstrated that as well as the #USWNT. It’s forever part of the program’s DNA.”
It’s a heartfelt, well-meaning statement (unlike a lot of what’s written about this subject on Twitter). But Hinkle surely sees herself as choosing love every day, including and perhaps especially the day she refused to play for the national team. For all the fans who feel she is an incorrigible villain for having her views, there are also fans who are delighted at how she sacrificed for her faith. There is a passionate argument in saying no one should tell Hinkle how to live her life. There is also a passionate argument in saying Hinkle is tacitly telling everyone else how to live their lives.
Don’t expect many minds to change. The key question over the coming months is whether Ellis’ mind will change.
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