- The National Women's Soccer League has long been welcoming to LGBTQ+ players and fans.
- This week, two NWSL clubs added players with histories of public anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric.
- The drafting of Sydny Nasello and signing of Jaelene Daniels challenge the NWSL's progressive reputation.
LGBTQ+ players and fans have been woven into the fabric of the National Women's Soccer League ever since its founding in 2012.
But even as the world's premier women's professional soccer league embarks on its 10th season, a struggle to maintain its LGBTQ-friendly reputation persists.
Just this week, two NWSL clubs — the North Carolina Courage and the Portland Thorns — welcomed players with a public history of anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment and rhetoric onto their rosters. The additions are calling into question the NWSL and its clubs' commitment to LGBTQ+ fan and player safety.
The Thorns' top pick in the 2022 NWSL Draft has engaged in controversial activity on social media
Portland has already come under fire in recent months for its role in the Paul Riley sex abuse scandal. And amid supporters' continued calls for accountability within the NWSL franchise, club leaders offered fans yet another point of concern with their first selection in the 2022 NWSL Draft.
The Thorns took University of South Florida striker Sydny Nasello with the 13th overall pick in Saturday's college draft. Though the Bulls star's success on the pitch — 11 goals and five assists over 19 games in 2021 — speaks for itself, her off-field conduct has prompted a firestorm from fans across the league.
—Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) December 18, 2021
A series of tweets that Nasello liked and re-shared from her personal Twitter account began circulating after she was drafted Saturday afternoon.
Several of the messages boasted far-right political talking points including celebrations of President Donald Trump's proposed border wall and baseless claims that former President Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
But perhaps most concerning for fans and players was a transphobic message she retweeted. The original tweet, which came from conservative commentator Charlie Kirk, said that: "Biological males who think they are girls should not be allowed to compete in sports against actual biological girls."
—Mary BOO! 👻 (@MarySueSays) December 18, 2021
Nasello used Twitter to issue an apology to fans on Saturday.
But shortly thereafter, the newly-selected Thorn made her Twitter account private, restricting the public from viewing her activity — and her apology — on the platform.
Portland head coach Rhian Wilkinson insisted the team remains "an inclusive, open club that values its fans and knows what we stand for" while addressing the matter with The Athletic's Steph Yang.
"[Nasello] is someone that we did a lot of due diligence on in terms of what we do as as a club, but as a first year head coach and — yeah, these are these are gonna come across as excuses — but I do need to hold my hand up and be responsible for not doing the work needed on the social media side," she added. "Definitely a piece that we're going to be working with this young lady and getting to know her."
For many Thorns fans, the commitment to working on it was not good enough.
—Sam Svilar (@sammich923) December 19, 2021
—WoSo12 ⚽️ NWSL (@WoSoPlayer12) December 19, 2021
—Not So Chillsea 🌹⭐️⭐️ (@WaddellChelsea) December 19, 2021
—Not So Chillsea 🌹⭐️⭐️ (@WaddellChelsea) December 19, 2021
—Kathleen Gadeholt (@KGadeholt) December 19, 2021
The Courage find themselves in a similar position after re-signing a highly controversial former player
The day after the NWSL college draft, North Carolina announced that the franchise had agreed to terms on a one-year deal with Jaelene Daniels. A longtime starter for the Courage who won three NWSL championships with the club, Daniels — formerly known by her maiden name, Hinkle — was widely considered one of the league's most talented defenders before she retired in 2020 to start a family.
Early in her NWSL career, Daniels began earning call-ups to the US Women's National Team. But in 2017, she cited "personal reasons" for declining an invitation to national team camp.
Later, Daniels — who is a devout Christian — admitted that she had withdrawn from the USWNT camp due to her religious aversion to wearing an LGBTQ+ pride jersey.
Multiple current and former national team players publicly identify as LGBTQ+, and the USWNT has long supported them and queer fans by donning rainbow-laden jerseys in celebration of Pride Month each June.
"I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn't my job to wear this jersey," Daniels said on Christian television show The 700 Club. "I gave myself three days to just seek and pray and determine what he was asking me to do in this situation."
"I knew in my spirit I was doing the right thing," she added. "I knew I was being obedient."
Fans did not respond favorably to Daniels' homophobic admission. She was routinely booed at subsequent NWSL games, with some fans even making signs critiquing the "personal reasons" for which she missed a shot on the national team.
Unsurprisingly, many NWSL supporters were not thrilled to hear that Daniels was back in the fold with North Carolina. And given the announcement's proximity to the fallout involving Nasello, fans were quick to draw parallels between the two incidents.
—Megan Gianniny (@megan_ji) December 19, 2021
—Laura L (@LauraLjol2) December 19, 2021
—The Uproar (@UproarNC) December 20, 2021
—Nat, JD, MA 🏳️🌈 (@slootsloot24) December 19, 2021
Much like the Thorns, the Courage lost credibility among players and fans for their involvement in the Riley scandal. The club employed the now-disgraced head coach for years before The Athletic brought allegations of his abuse to light. Riley won two championships and earned two NWSL Coach of the Year nods while in North Carolina.
For both the Courage and the Thorns, adding players whose ideologies contradict the values held by the vast majority of NWSL fans — and those purportedly held by the teams themselves — doesn't help either franchise earn back the trust they lost during the 2021 season.
If anything, their stances have pushed fans further from the teams they once ardently supported.
There's no doubt that Nasello and Daniels are talented soccer players, and both have the potential to make their teams stronger on the pitch. But after the tumultuous year the league just endured, winning can no longer be the be-all and end-all for NWSL franchises.
North Carolina and Portland face a pressing question; how valuable is on-field success if no fans are left to support it?
The NWSL and Courage did not immediately respond to Insider's request for comment. The NWSL players association declined to comment for this story.