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Hinkle's refusal to play for USWNT over Pride Month jersey offers opportunity for different kinds of understanding

Eric Adelson
Columnist
(Getty)

It’s the kind of headline that can lead to more ugliness than understanding.

“Women’s Soccer Star Turns Down USWNT Invite Over Pride Month Jersey.”

The decision by Jaelene Hinkle last year didn’t come with an explanation at the time. The 25-year-old defender for the North Carolina Courage told Christian talk show The 700 Club this week that she turned down a 2017 call-up to the U.S. national team because of the jersey the team wore for two friendlies to honor the LGBTQ community. Hinkle said she “felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn’t my job to wear this jersey.”

News travels fast: She received some boos on Wednesday in Portland when her Courage beat the Thorns. Some in the crowd waved rainbow flags. One fan brought a banner saying “Personal Reasons” in rainbow colors, a clap back to the original given reason for Hinkle’s choice. Hinkle didn’t do any interviews after the match.

Some will dismiss her as a homophobe or deride her as someone whose fundamentalist views equate to contempt for an entire group of people. But those who want context can listen to her story. And then listen to a thoughtful reply.

First of all, this shouldn’t be cast as unpatriotic any more than Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem should be cast as unpatriotic. Hinkle appreciates the honor of playing for the U.S. “I’m being invited to play the game I love for the country,” she told CBN.com. “There’s an emblem of the U.S. flag on my chest. That’s huge.” She prayed on her decision for three days, and she knew she was giving up “the one dream little girls dream about their entire life.” She knew she may not get another chance, and she hasn’t been called back up to the team again since. It wasn’t a hasty decision.

What went into her decision was a lifetime commitment to her faith, and one that caused her some struggle in college at Texas Tech. She said he was “miserable” at times because she would go out on a Saturday night and then go to church on Sunday morning, wanting to fit into both worlds but wondering if she fit in either.

Against this backdrop, she got news that doctors found a blood clot in her knee. There was a chance she needed a stent, which would threaten her entire career. “Everything just came crashing down,” she said.

She got what her doctor called a “miracle.” It turned out she didn’t need the stent. She was clear to continue with soccer. It led her to the pros and some appearances on the national team. It led her to this choice, which came from her desire to show obedience to her faith and scripture. To her, it was a chance to show gratitude. It made emotional and moral sense.

It also resonated with teammate Jessica McDonald: “She’s high on her faith and in my opinion, I think that’s absolutely incredible,” McDonald told the Oregonian. “If she’s for God, that’s fine, that’s great. If that’s what keeps her going in her life and keeps positivity in her life, then let that be.”

Freedom of religion is one of the founding principles of this country, and Hinkle is an example of that.

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In response, SB Nation blogger Katelyn Best wrote a heartfelt open letter to Hinkle. In it, she asks Hinkle to put herself into the writer’s shoes, and to try to understand “What years and years of constant messages, small and large, direct and indirect, that this truth you know about yourself deep in your guts – not totally unlike how you describe your relationship with God! – is wrong, a mistake, something to hide and to hide from.”

Part of Best’s point is that the disdain Hinkle felt this week is something the members of the LGBTQ community feel all of their lives. For Hinkle, there is the safe haven of the church; for many like Best, there is no safe haven. And Best points out how it’s much worse beyond American borders: “Your discomfort is nothing compared to the suffering of gay teens forced into conversion therapy, the very real threats to the lives of LGBT people in places like Chechnya and Jamaica, or the lifelong emotional trauma that’s so widespread among queer people everywhere.”

Best concluded: “You had a choice to refuse that call-up, and to then speak publicly about why you did so. I hope, now, you’ll make the choice to listen.”

Hinkle spoke her truth, based on her experiences. So did Best. There is an argument to be made that Hinkle’s truth simply does not allow Best’s truth – that Hinkle is deciding before understanding. But there is also an argument to be made that if Hinkle is jeered for a personal choice out of faith that doesn’t negatively affect anyone else, we aren’t much of a tolerant society.

This came during an embarrassing week in American culture. A famous TV star spewed racist and anti-Semitic venom about an African-American leader and an international philanthropist, and a TV comedienne used a terrible word to slam the president’s daughter. The ensuing social media maelstrom overshadowed needed attention to news of an unbearable death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. All this comes in the days before the June 12 anniversary of the Pulse massacre, which deeply scarred both the Puerto Rican community and the gay community.

Whether you side with Hinkle or with Best, it’s hard to feel like we’re paying attention to the right things.

One way to address that is to try to figure out what life is like for someone living in doubt or fear. Some fear is mortal fear, some is fear of ridicule, some is fear that society at large refuses to accommodate your views. It’s all a variation of fear, and it’s all isolating for those who bear it.

Here in the United States, our social media community is often a cesspool. But our sports venues usually aren’t. The U.S. Women’s team is the best in the world, and it has players that embrace both religion and tolerance. That was the message of the Pride Month jersey itself: red, white and blue on the front, rainbow colors on the back. It is a distinctly American message worth heeding: work to diminish fear, and celebrate courage.

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