In amongst the American election results, another departure was quietly announced. Normally when a player, especially one who has played for their country at the highest level retires, a fanfare ensues. We relish their accomplishments, lament their missed opportunities or opportunities not offered. Generally, we are sad to see them go, and we wish them well in future endeavours. This is especially true when they retire at a relatively young age. In the case of this player I saw none of that, mostly it was celebrations of her departure and wishes of good riddance.
I can honestly say there are few players that have divided opinion as Jaelene Hinkle. Yes, even Megan Rapinoe with her politics has divided less. See Hinkle has alienated herself from fans, officials, and even her own teammates! So, it makes sense that so few people are sad to see her go.
It is not her playing style, her defensive record, or her conduct on the pitch that has made her such a figure of hate. It’s not even the fact she was playing for North Carolina Courage, one of the most universally hated teams, that has caused such ire. Although an argument can be made it is her presence within the Courage that has led to such comprehensive hatred.
Her playing career started out through the standard route for US based players, playing college football ‘soccer’ for the American readers. Her record for the Colorado state was exceptional and she landed on the All-State team for each of her four years at high school. Her college career in Texas gained herself so much traction that she was the seventh overall pick in the 2015 draft, plus she garnered attention from the US national youth team and picked to play at all age groups. So far so good, her future is looking bright.
It was her first year at the Western New York Flash that it all started going downhill. During her first year at the club, America joined the 21st century and legalised Gay Marriage. Twitter was filled with joyous folk celebrating the news no matter where they fell on the sexuality spectrum or the Kingsley scale if you will. It was a rather fabulous occasion.
However, Jaelene Hinkle did not think so, tweeting and I quote –
“This world is falling farther and farther away from God… All that can be done by believers is to continue to pray.” June 26, 2015
Coincidence, most think not as she had been incredibly open about her faith in her press and interviews. So, it was quite clear what she was referring too.
So why does this matter? It’s not like sport has a great reputation in terms of LGBT rights. Case in point: Israel Folau the rugby player who recently espoused similar opinions and was swiftly removed from the Australian league set up. Though it did not take too long for him to find another employer in the Catalan Dragons, signing a one-year contract in January 2020. Homophobic abuse is rife within sport from Justin Fashanu to Gareth Thomas – chants with Chelsea being rentboys or asking Brighton if your boyfriend knows you are here.
Women’s football and women’s sport, in general, are more accepting. Whilst a lot of players are still cautious in revealing who they really are with fear of losing sponsorships but there are 100’s of “out” players. There is a huge LGBTQI+ following in women’s football. Hell, myself, and my fiancé Kate met at the women’s World Cup. So, Hinkle’s tweet enraged the fan base and made her public enemy number one. When she was drafted to North Carolina in 2017 she really cemented that status.
Hinkle was called up sporadically for the US National team throughout her career, with a relatively low number of caps (8) for a great defender, who played well for Courage and earned herself a first senior call up as early as 2015. The reason why is contentious and no consensus can be drawn.
The old adage is there are three versions in all events. Yours, theirs, and the truth. However, in this case as we don’t know the truth the third version will be my conjecture because, well because I can.
The main event seems to have happened in 2017 two years after the infamous tweet. Hinkle was called up to the US team for a series of friendlies against the Scandinavian countries Norway and Sweden. However soon after it was announced that she had declined the call-up and would not be attending the training camp. Highly unusual for a fighting fit player, in great form for her club. Her next call up wouldn’t be until the following year where she did attend the camp but ultimately didn’t make the squad for the tournament, that year’s 2018 Tournament of Nations. A tournament the US would go on to win, without Hinkle.
So, what was the difference between the two and why ultimately did Hinkle not make the squad in 2018?
Firstly, from Jaelene’s point of view – in 2017 the tour around Scandinavia was going to celebrate Pride month. This would involve each player pairing up despite their own personal orientation and… I’m of course kidding. It just meant that all their squad numbers would be in fetching rainbow and so would be the captain’s armband. In Jaelene’s good Christian heart, she could not be seen supporting the cause therefore she withdrew. Which would be fine, well it’s not fine but each to their own. It would be fine if she quietly just withdrew and nothing more was said. The major upset came when she did an interview on the 700 club which is notorious for its hate-filled content all under the guise of Christian faith. It is there that she continued to make comments about how she had felt uncomfortable expressing her Christianity in the team,
“I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey” May 2018
therefore, had removed herself from the side. It was this that made her public enemy number one.
She then double downed in another interview, where she stated being a Christian was the reason why she had been blacklisted from the national team. Despite her fantastic form, she would never play at international level again after withdrawing in 2017. Hinkle made it clear that the decision had been taken out of her hands, whether she believed it had come from the team themselves or higher management was not made clear.
In a 2019 blog post she reiterated that she had felt misunderstood and vilified but stood by her decision to bear witness to her faith. She denied making any of the homophobic comments that had been attributed to her in the press. It was this time of her life that Satan was testing her. I am sure Ashlyn Harris appreciated being called Satan.
Which brings me to the second point of view which is the perspective of the team she refused to join. An opponent of Hinkle in the national set-up was Ashlyn Harris, who when Hinkle’s comment re-emerged in 2019, was the first member of the USWNT to publicly renounce Hinkle. She took to Twitter proclaiming it was Hinkle’s attitude not her beliefs as to why people were unhappy, she was in the team. That Hinkle was a polarising figure within the setup. It might be bias showing, but I tend to believe Harris’s version of events over Jaelene’s.
The USWNT have many openly out players be it in their sexuality or their faith. Therefore, Hinkle’s comments pissed off a lot of people within the team. As Ashlyn tweeted they always have prayer rooms and worship at camp and will pray before each match. Christians and other faiths within the team are accommodated as well as the LGBTQI community. More so as that seems to be a genuine accommodation for the LGBTQI players rather than a grab for the pink pound.
Top players such as Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz and Alyssa Naeher have all been incredibly open about how their faith has helped them become the players they have. They initiate the prayer circles and will thank the lord when they win and very vocally at that. Yet they are still not booed whenever they touch the ball. It stands to reason that Ashlyn is right it is Hinkle’s homophobia that was led to such acrimony between her and the team.
As with those high-profile Christians within the team, there are also high-profile players who are also open about being part of the queer community. Captain Megan Rapinoe, Harris, and her wife Ali Kriger are advocates for numerous LGBT organizations. Kelly O’Hara recently ended speculation on her personal life by kissing her girlfriend when the USA won the World Cup in 2019. These are stalwarts of the team so it is unlikely they will have put up with Hinkle’s nonsense in camp. Harmony within the team is key to their success and since the Hope Solo debacle (which is another article in itself) – they won’t keep controversial players around for long.
This conjecture however leads me to the third opinion which is my own. Which therefore the most important.
All the articles including this one have concluded it’s her opinions which have led to Hinkle not getting into the squad. However, I offer another simpler alternate theory. She simply wasn’t what the coach wanted.
Defensive positions within the US team are the most competitive and overly subscribed. The US team over the last few years have favoured four at the back which means there are more defenders then spots. Despite getting the most minutes out of her nearest competitors last season her stats though impressive fall short over the preferred top four. Becky Sauerbrunn who is arguable Jaelene’s biggest competitor had a 10 percent higher success rate in passes, 10 percent higher rate of long passes. Her won duels were 25 percent higher and won aerial duels were 30 percent higher. Now granted Becky is two inches taller but those stats do not lie. Even Kelley O’Hara who has glass ankles managed to gain a higher rating in all defensive challenges.
So right there are your typical defenders who will be solid rocks in front of goal. This allows you to be a little more creative with your other two. So, if Hinkle is a standard defender you are going to go for a Crystal Dunn or a Julie Ertz who are much more versatile then the standard left-back which Hinkle offers.
So why retirement? It is one thing to accept you may never play for the national team, so many do not. Why now at 27, which is relevantly young to give up completely? My guess is she is probably pregnant or trying to become pregnant as a newlywed she will want a baby as quickly as possible.
A further reason could be she has not been protected against the recent and future expansion drafts meaning she could be transferred to any team without much choice. If her life is settled in North Carolina, then it makes sense she would quit before that happens or transfer to a team with teammates who have been vocal about her homophobic options.
In fact, it’s probably just a cruel joke by her biggest detractors but the rumour is she was due to be traded to Orlando pride. She retired rather than facing Ashlyn Harris in training or having to wear the word pride every day.
So, here is to you Jaelene, may you enjoy your retirement and whilst you may be missed for your talent, the fans will breathe a sigh of relief they go back to making The Reign their team of hate. I mean come on have you seen their new logo?