If you would like to learn how to alienate a club’s fanbase, perhaps irrevocably, you would struggle to find a better case study than the NWSL’s N.C. Courage this week. On Sunday, the club announced the signing of a player, Jaelene Daniels, antithetical to the vast majority of the team’s and league’s fans. After two full days of silence, the club put out a shockingly meek “apology” late Wednesday night, only further upsetting the once devoted fanbase.
The N.C. Courage are putting winning ahead of everything else, and they may lose a massive portion of their fan base in the process. Once again, the NWSL has shown us who they are, and it’s not pretty.
Jaelene Daniels (formerly Jaelene Hinkle) is a 28-year-old defender, and a darn good one at that with three NWSL titles. She’s received eight USWNT call-ups, no small feat given the quality available in this country. She retired in 2020 and gave birth to her first child in August of 2021. Normally fans would celebrate the signing of such a player.
When North Carolina announced it had re-signed Daniels, the reaction was the opposite of positive. Daniels has a long history of being openly homophobic. She has refused to play for the USWNT because the team was wearing Pride jerseys with rainbow numbers, using the platform of a known bigot to speak of her inability to acknowledge or support the identities of many of her teammates and fans, citing religion as her reasoning.
Daniels is fully within her right as an American citizen to hold these beliefs. It’s almost admirable she is able to still hold them despite most of society supporting LGBTQ+ rights, which are, to be clear, human rights. But the LGBTQ+ community has always been a huge part of the NWSL — both as fans and players. To speak hatefully against teammates, opponents and supporters is to open herself and whoever employs her up to criticism, which is exactly what has followed.
(Quick aside: After posting my story on the Daniels signing earlier this week, a lot of people in the comments claimed Daniels isn’t homophobic because she isn’t “fearful of homosexuals.” I can’t believe I have to explain this, but homophobia is about prejudice and hate, not fear.)
Three days after the Courage announced they were bringing back Daniels, the NWSL club released a letter to fans of the club in an attempt to make amends. At the exact same time — so you know this was a coordinated PR effort — Daniels posted her own message to fans on Wednesday night.
A letter to fans from the NC Courage Organization.
“We are very sorry to all those we have hurt, especially those within the LGBTQIA+ community.”
— NC Courage (@TheNCCourage) December 23, 2021
Sincerely, Jae pic.twitter.com/LeF6Jq39hj— Jaelene Daniels (@jaelenedaniels) December 23, 2021
These messages did not go over well with the vast majority of Courage and NWSL fans, who by and large are extremely supportive of the LGBTQ+ community, if not members themselves.
I don’t want to attack Daniels too much because she’s an individual who, as I said, has her right to hold her beliefs. If she doesn’t want to support the LGBTQ+ community, that’s her prerogative. But it should be pointed out how hollow her statement was. Not once did Daniels apologize for her discriminatory comments; not once did she say she’ll try to do better. She claims to love her teammates, but many responders on Twitter pointed out, it’s impossible to love someone while also openly disagreeing with their identities.
Glennon says it best. https://t.co/eDmD3HCs25— Tori USWNT⚽NWSL️️#ProtectThePlayers (@TBPandTSwiftfan) December 23, 2021
There is no love without full acceptance of who they are. You divorcing sexuality from identity is for your own homophobic comfort. I pity your inability to evolve on this & your teammates whose NWSL destiny’s are tied to their ability to work with you.— Oof️ (@thabiso_ny) December 23, 2021
If Daniels really wants to have acceptance within the team, she first has to accept her teammates for who they are, not just ignore their identities and throw out blind love. If someone were to tell a coworker they love him while also speaking behind his back that they believe his identity as a Jewish man makes him inferior, they can’t expect that coworker to love them back.
I think if Daniels had come out and said she was wrong for her hurtful statements in the past and she had changed as a person, most fans would have been more accepting of her. Instead she threw some word soup onto a MS Word document using the default Calibri font, took a screenshot and completely missed the point. She has clearly not changed her view, so she should not be surprised when fans continue to criticize her for her harmful actions.
Do Daniels’ teammates love her back in spite of her beliefs? It’s impossible to know how Daniels’ teammates really feel about her; but perception is reality when it comes to fans who see her homophobic statements and believe she can’t possibly get along with teammates. In the past, some teammates have said they are still friends with her despite her views. Former Courage coach Paul Riley once said she had “a good heart,” though that compliment now feels more like a condemnation given Riley’s reported homophobia and sexual coercion of players.
How can fans be expected to support a team and league that pays a player who does not believe the identities of themselves and/or their loved ones are valid?
Now About That Courage Letter
As for the Courage’s letter to fans, NWSL fandom across the country, especially in North Carolina, has called bullshit on the organization.
Unlike Daniels’ statement, this letter at least makes an attempt at an apology and acknowledges the real harm that has been caused. Like Daniels’ statement, it doesn’t do enough to show fans that a real attempt is being made to do better in the future.
The N.C. leadership basically said it considered the ramifications of signing Daniels and decided winning was more important than upsetting fans. I suppose that’s fair; it’s their organization, they can do what they want. But they can’t claim at all to be surprised about the reaction, and they damn sure need to do more if they want to appease their fanbase.
What I think most of the fans are most upset about is the fact the Courage still claim to support the LGBTQ+ community and Pride initiatives while signing someone who is openly homophobic. The letter makes a list of the bare minimum of things the club is doing to promote inclusion, but it all feels hollow in the face of hiring someone like Daniels. It’s like a World Cup host nation saying it denounces slavery in all forms and then using slavery to build World Cup stadiums.
Fans were not shy about pointing out this hypocrisy.
I see you like our rainbow money but not our rainbow anger— Ellen Parkhurst (@believe_women_) December 23, 2021
NC: We’re sorry we hit your carFans: What are you gonna to do to fix it?
NC: Continue to look before turning. Continue to stop at red lights. Look for opportunities to partner with people that haven’t hit your car.
— Lars Zanzibars (@larszanzibars) December 23, 2021
Countless fans announced they are done with the N.C. Courage after this episode. Until Daniels is off the team, I imagine that will continue.
just lost a fan right here. y'all aren't doing anything...— Nubia (they/them) (@nxbaafnkln) December 23, 2021
By keeping her, you have lost me. The message is loud and clear, and this club’s value system does not align with my own.— Heather (@heatherg23) December 23, 2021
This is a troubling trend across the NWSL. On Saturday, the Portland Thorns (another of Paul Riley’s former clubs) drafted a player with a history of supporting transphobic material on social media. The Thorns have yet to make any sort of apology or letter to fans, so at least the Courage are acknowledging the pain they caused.
But it runs deeper in the NWSL. Over the past 14 months, at least eight major figures in the league have been fired or forced to resign over scandals involving abuse and harassment, proof the league has a systemic problem with exploitation of athletes who are struggling just to be paid a living wage.
Every time one of these stories rolls around you think, well surely this is the turning point and things will get better. They never do and never will without dedication and hard work from the league and clubs, who so far seem unwilling to do anything beyond put out empty statements like the Courage did this week.
I am not optimistic about the future of the NWSL. There is still too much systemic rot that must be removed before the league can truly reform. But if there’s one thing the league has going for it, it’s the fans, who will continue to hold the league up to a higher standard.
And with that, I’ll leave you with a few more of the comments/responses to the N.C. Courage and Jaelene Daniels statements.
Fan Response To N.C. Courage Statement On Jaelene Daniels
You're sorry for the harm, but unwilling to make the harm go away.— Visa Diva (@mjswenson71) December 23, 2021
“We will be doing nothing different. Thanks for your money. "- The NC Courage
— Scout (@scout_2pt0) December 23, 2021
Perhaps if Ms Daniels would recant her well-publicized hate speech, that would do a lot to relieve your sorrow at the anger from the LGBTQIA+ community.— BJ Vaxxed and Boostered Leyer (@BettyLeyer) December 23, 2021
It’s a cliche, but actions speak louder than words. You can’t say one thing and do another and expect people to believe you. Just be honest say you only care about winning and that’s it— Cassie (@CasstheMass) December 23, 2021
I will NEVER buy a single item from you anymore, until you guys actually do something instead of just talk— esachavalasoyyo (@El48654156) December 23, 2021
I’m an ordained pastor who knows faith & Bible, works in & with queer ministries & communities, & knows soccer & team dynamics. None of the actions you listed speak to accountability for Jae or safety & care for lgbtqia players but they do speak to money. I’d like to help.— Rev. Stephanie Kendell (@skendell) December 23, 2021
As long as the purveyor of hate is on your squad, you will receive no support from me in any fashion.— Rick Pytlik (@RickPytlik) December 23, 2021
Fan Response To Jaelene Daniels Statement
You refused to support and celebrate the personhood of the people you claim to love. You made their identity about you and your faith when it has nothing to do with your faith. You did that. Are you going to own & make amends for it, or just post word soup & carry on regardless?— Gen Williams (@genwilliams) December 23, 2021
Still oppose the Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality? Still believe ️ aren’t entitled to equal protection under law?— NWSL to the Bay (@NWSLSFBayArea) December 23, 2021
Someone's sexuality is part of who they are. 'Hate the sin, love the sinner' doesn't cut it when you believe that who someone loves makes them inferior or wrong— Childish Sambino (@SambinoChildish) December 23, 2021
Real "I don't see race" energy— Jazzy (@jedijazzy622) December 23, 2021
"Jaelene Daniels mysteriously injured every year during pride matches" will be the new "Neymar mysteriously injured every year on his sister's birthday"— Lord Giron (@Lord_Giron) December 23, 2021