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North Carolina Football Club Underscores Commitment as a Safe Place for Gay Fans, Allies and Players

by Christopher Ehlers

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Thursday June 23, 2022

North Carolina Football Club Underscores Commitment as a Safe Place for Gay Fans, Allies and Players

Celebrating Pride within the soccer community is a relatively new American tradition that has been enthusiastically embraced in recent years. Teams initially started welcoming gay fans as a way to boost ticket sales, but that's evolved to a much more conscious strategy to connect with fans.  American soccer leagues like Major League Soccer, the National Women's Soccer League, and the United Soccer League have largely made concerted efforts to be more inclusive, which in turn strengthens their relationship with their fans and deepens their roots in the community. 

The North Carolina Football Club, in particular, has long been a champion of inclusivity and acceptance, as evidenced by their commitment to providing a safe environment for gay fans, allies, and players. But in December of 2021, the club came under fire when the North Carolina Courage — North Carolina Football Club's women's team — re-signed a player with a history of anti-LGBTQ ideology rooted in her religious beliefs.  

The outcry began in 2017 when Courage defender Jaelene Daniels (née Hinkle) decided not to play for the U.S. Women's National Team because she refused to wear a special rainbow jersey in honor of Pride Month. In 2020, she left the Courage in order to start a family, but late last year, Daniels returned to professional soccer and the Courage.  Women's sports, especially women's soccer in the U.S., had become such a welcoming environment for queerness that the re-signing felt like a betrayal to fans.  
The Courage released a statement in which they apologized to those hurt by the decision to re-sign Daniels while also reiterating their long-standing commitment to inclusivity, respect, and the LGBTQ+ community. "Jaelene and organization leadership have had a productive conversation about the expectations we have set for our entire team, in and out of the locker room," said the Courage via a press release. "She will continue to uphold the Courage's standards of respect and inclusion without reservation." 

What's more, the North Carolina Football Club — inclusive of their men's and women's teams — detailed, ambitious plans which included continuing support of Pride games, display of Pride jerseys, participation in local Pride events, and donations to local and national LGBTQ+ groups. In addition, they pledged to improve the culture within their club by facilitating diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives while continuing to amplify LGBTQ+ causes. Lastly, they encouraged the community to continue to hold the North Carolina Football Club accountable.  
"We recognize we have a responsibility to our soccer community to maintain a space built around inclusion, equity and diversity," read the press release, "and we know we have work to do once again to prove the North Carolina Courage stands with the LGBTQIA+ community." 

While some may be quick to dismiss the North Carolina Football Club statement as damage control and pinkwashing, the truth is that the organization has long been authentically committed to promoting inclusivity both in soccer and in their own North Carolina community. After all, players, front office staff, and members of the ownership group are proud members of the LGBTQ+ community. It's with these personal experiences in mind that the club has developed a robust Pride program formally beginning in June, of course, and extending through October in celebration of National Coming Out Day and National LGBTQ History Month. 

While the official Pride nights will take place in July so as not to draw attention away from their Juneteenth celebrations (the Courage's only home game in June was played on June 19), the North Carolina Football Club participated in the Apex Pride Festival on June 11; and will be at Out! Raleigh Pride on June 25, and the Durham Pride Parade on September 24.  
On July 15, the North Carolina Courage will host its own Pride Festival where fans will enjoy music and other live entertainment, drag queen story hour, family-friendly activities, food and beverage trucks, plus the opportunity to engage with vendors from local LGBTQ+ businesses. 
And, of course, the women's team will be outfitted with rainbow numbers on their jerseys on Pride night in July, which is perhaps the most symbolic statement of all -- that jersey represents the essence of its club and who they play for, and within the world of women's soccer that absolutely includes the LGBTQ+ community.