Welcome to American Soccer: Cashing In On Equality

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This is the third article in a series titled “Welcome to American Soccer,” which focuses on providing equal treatment and access to soccer in the United States. The articles focus on where U.S. Soccer stands on a variety of issues and where they need to improve.


In May 2017, English FA Chief Greg Clarke acknowledged how men’s soccer had fallen behind in LGBT equality. Speaking at an event called “Rainbow Laces,” at Old Trafford in Manchester, Clarke said that men’s soccer was “a couple of decades” behind the women’s game with regards to LGBT equality.

“I was at the Women’s FA Cup final and it was great, inclusive—there were gay people, straight people, transgender people, and it was a wonderful occasion,” Clarke said. “For me, when the finals in the men’s competition have the same feel, we will have succeeded. It is about the when the men’s game starts to feel as inclusive as the women’s game—then we are there.”

Clarke was praised in many circles for these comments, and rightfully so. However, while it is true that the women’s game is much more LGBT friendly than the men’s game, I do not believe that any soccer league or federation has gone far enough when it comes to respect for and inclusion of LGBT people.

Gender and sexual orientation play a different role in sports. Thus, I will divide this article into two sections: the first will look at the U.S. Soccer Federation’s approach to sexual orientation, while the second will examine policies and practices surrounding transgender and gender non-conforming people.

Sexual Orientation

U.S. Soccer has made efforts in recent years to be supportive of diverse sexual orientations, and that has been reflected to some extent both on and off the pitch. Both the men’s and women’s senior national teams have worn rainbow numbers on their jerseys for Pride month. They have donated money to LGBT organizations. Most MLS and NWSL teams have Pride nights.

In the women’s game, players of diverse sexual orientations are not hard to find. Megan Rapinoe, who is openly gay, has used her platform to promote LGBT respect and inclusion. Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger announced their engagement in People magazine last month, earning a wave of support.

The men’s game is not quite there yet. However, MLS has had two openly gay players. Robbie Rogers, who played for the U.S. national team, came out as gay in 2013. That same year, he joined the L.A. Galaxy and became the first openly gay player in MLS history. In 2018, Collin Martin, who plays for Minnesota United, came out as gay ahead of the team’s Pride night. With that announcement, he became the only openly gay male player in all of North America’s major sports leagues.

But both the men’s and women’s teams have run into issues with sexual orientation. For MLS, this includes suspending players and fans for homophobic comments. But the best example of U.S. Soccer’s ongoing struggle is the situation with Jaelene Hinkle.

In 2017, Hinkle was called up to the senior U.S. women’s team for a couple of friendlies. The matches were in June, and this was the first year U.S. Soccer decided to wear rainbow numbers to celebrate Pride month. Following the announcement, Hinkle withdrew from the camp and later revealed that she did so because of her homophobic beliefs.

The decision isolated Hinkle from the U.S. team for a while. But in 2018, she earned another call-up. U.S. Soccer’s decision left many LGBT fans feeling betrayed.

“It just shows they’re full of crap,” Kelly Trione said in an interview with SBNation. “They may legally be a non-profit, but it’s all about the money and they didn’t even try and pretend it wasn’t.”

It’s decisions like this that lead some LGBT players to stay in the closet and some fans to avoid the game altogether. While U.S. Soccer has done more than other federations when it comes to inclusion and respect for diverse sexual orientations, they have not done enough to stand up to discrimination in big moments—especially if it threatens their profit.

Gender

As the world becomes more gender-inclusive, U.S. Soccer is not the only federation dealing with tough questions. There is the less-difficult question of welcoming transgender players who still fall within the gender binary. A transgender man should be allowed to play for the men’s team. A transgender woman should be allowed to play for the women’s team. This shouldn’t be as controversial as it is, but across almost all sports, teams are failing to take the proper action.

But U.S. Soccer, like almost all other sports, also needs to confront the gender binary. Teams and leagues are divided into two gender categories. Where can people play if they identify as something else? What about players who are nonbinary?

As society becomes more gender-inclusive, this is going to be an increasingly important issue for leagues and youth systems to challenge. Unfortunately, the current inaction seems to suggest that soccer is okay leaving people behind.

The U.S. Soccer policy on gender says that in youth leagues, children should be allowed to play under the gender they identify as, as long as that identity can be confirmed by a doctor or a counselor. But it doesn’t say anything about nonbinary children, and it does not apply to professional leagues. According to U.S. Soccer, FIFA would need to take action before they can at the professional level.

Whatever reasons U.S. Soccer gives, the reality is that the environment created by the sport does not welcome gender diversity. Transgender athletes are prevented from reaching the highest level of their sport, if they are even welcome to play at all. Nonbinary athletes have nowhere to go.

This ultimately will require global soccer to rethink the gender binary and the way that FIFA has organized based on gender.

“Part of it is breaking down the sexism in sports,” Chris Mosier, a transgender man who competes with Team USA in triathlons, said in an interview with ESPN. “Since sport is so binary, it becomes complicated for anyone who is not male or female. We need to have conversations about what gender actually is and what are the attributes of a successful athlete.”

U.S. Soccer, like many major sports, has a long way to go before they create a truly inclusive environment for athletes of diverse sexual orientation and gender identity. They have made progress with sexual orientation but failed to stand firmly against discrimination. With gender identity, they are lagging behind, along with the rest of the sports world. They say they support LGBT athletes and fans: it’s time to take some action.

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