As the leaves in the northern United States change from green to reds, oranges, and yellows it is that magical time again.
NWSL awards season.
And with this most magical season comes questions that transcend what happened on the pitch. We can talk about who scored the most goals or prevented the most attacks, but we also have to talk about what it means to honor a player.
And while I do like writing about awards, I don’t like writing about Jaelene Hinkle. But as my colleagues and I prepare to vote on NWSL Defender of the Year and Best and Second Best XI, she has come to mind in a way I just can’t shake.
Hinkle is an engaging person to interview, one of the very best outside backs in the NWSL, and a two time NWSL champion with both the Western New York Flash and the North Carolina Courage. From all reports of those that cover the Courage on a regular basis, she’s also well-liked by her teammates. They did just vote her team Defender of the Year after all. She is also a homophobe. She is someone who has gone on the Christian Broadcasting Network show, The 700 Club. She has made social media posts decrying the Supreme Court’s legalization of gay marriage as evidence of the country “falling farther and farther away from God,” among other posts.
The NWSL specifically, and women’s soccer in general, has become a safe space for queerness. It’s a place where players can live their authentic lives and where fans can be themselves and find others to share their queerness. Pride nights, openly LGBT+ players hugging or kissing their partner after matches, social media posts. All of this contributes to a sense of safeness and acceptance.
But even if this is the common trend, it’s statistically certain that there are players in the NWSL who believe as Hinkle does, but who simply have chosen to stay private with their thoughts. In fact, this is part of why many fans see Hinkle as such a threat. She’s not just one person with an opinion; she’s a representation of many others who would like to deny the humanity of others. In this era, at this time, people justifiably take that stuff seriously.
My own feelings on Hinkle have changed since she first made her social media posts. At the time I thought they were relatively harmless, and that she had a right to them even if I disagreed. I regret that.
All of which brings us back to the big question that is rolling around my brain as I work to put together my Defender of the Year, Best and Second Best XI votes.
Should Hinkle be included?
I am pretty firmly on the Casey Short is the NWSL Defender of the Year train. Short has been a rock solid defensive outside back on a team that needed a leader on their backline. Short was likely the last or the second to last cut on the USWNT World Cup roster and played like someone who should have been starting on the team in France. I’ll write more about Short later but suffice it to say she has my vote. But if she has a challenger, it might just be Hinkle. She started nearly every game the Courage have played since the team moved from New York, and every match this season. She is maddening competent at her job. In fact, Hinkle has the edge in raw offensive stats over Short. She has more assists, more successful crosses and more key passes. She’s not the defender of the year, but she’s not that far away.
And so, as I wrote out my Best and Second best XI, I struggled with whether to list her. If I am going by the stat sheet and on field play, she has been among the best in the league at her position this year. So if I don’t list her, the XI has to come with asterisk next to it. This is the Best XI, minus one player who otherwise should be on there. After all, if her own teammates can vote for her, why can’t I?
When I put the names down on the spreadsheet I use before writing my NWSL awards piece I wrote and then deleted her name. Then wrote it again. Then deleted it again. But I finally settling on not voting for her.
I have voted for her in past years. But each year it get harder. Each year it feels the harm compounds. Two years ago, this was mostly unspoken. Then she turned down a USWNT callup over the pride numbers and she gave that 700 Club interview. Now it’s all crystal clear. And I find I can no longer hold my nose and cast a vote. I can’t keep voting for someone when it takes this much mental gymnastics to justify it to myself.
Others may vote for her, and I get why. I won’t begrudge them their vote. She has been very good. She may very well be in the Best XI and she has an outside shot at Defender of the Year. But I can’t do it. Will one vote matter? Likely not, given how the NWSL compiles the awards. But at the end of the day, they entrust us each with a vote, and we have to make up our minds as best we can. So it is my ballot to do with what I want. And in this moment, I don’t want her name written there next to mine.
Hinkle may be one of the best in her position in the NWSL, but she doesn’t represent what the league has come to mean for so many of the fans of the sport. Until and unless she changes her bigoted views I can’t include her in my voting.