NWSL's Courage sorry over re-signing Jaelene Daniels, who refused to wear USWNT gay pride jersey

The North Carolina Courage have apologized to fans upset by the recent signing of Jaelene Daniels, the player who made headlines for refusing a U.S. women's national team call-up over rainbow-themed gay pride jerseys.

The Courage announced on Sunday that the club had brought back Daniels, who retired last year after playing seven seasons in the National Women's Soccer League. But some fans were quick to criticize the move because of Daniels' previous opposition to gay rights.

Daniels, who played under the last name Hinkle until last year, made headlines when she declined a call-up to the USWNT in 2017 because she refused to wear a rainbow-theme jersey for gay pride month. The jerseys, which were worn by every member of the USWNT, were later auctioned off to benefit a gay rights nonprofit.

"In response to the recent news of re-signing Jaelene Daniels, we as a club acknowledge the impact this announcement has on our community," the North Carolina Courage said Wednesday in an unsigned open letter to fans. "We've spent the past few days reading your messages and reflecting on our actions. We are very sorry to all those we have hurt, especially those within the LGBTQIA+ community.

"The decision to re-sign Jaelene was not made lightly and included significant conversations between organization leadership and Jaelene. The priority expressed in those conversations is the safety of our players and maintaining an inclusive, respectful space for the entire team."

The Courage did not indicate they are reconsidering having Daniels join the team for the 2022 season, but said they had "a productive conversation about the expectations we have set for our entire team," which includes "respect and inclusion without reservation." The club will continue to host pride nights, partner on initiatives to support the gay community, and "outfit players in custom-made Pride jerseys," according to the statement.

Daniels released her own letter on Wednesday night, writing that her love for her Courage teammates "has never been based on their identity."

"I remain committed to my faith and my desire for people to know that my love for them isn't based on their belief system or sexuality," she wrote in a statement that came out immediately after the Courage's statement. "I pray and firmly believe that my teammates know how much I cherish them, respect them, and love them."

Daniels declined the USWNT call-up in 2017 for what the U.S. Soccer Federation called "personal reasons." She later appeared on the Christian talk show "The 700 Club" to clarify that it was in opposition to the rainbow-themed jersey.

"I just felt so convicted in my spirit that it wasn't my job to wear this jersey," she said at the time. "I gave myself three days to just seek and pray and determine what [God] was asking me to do in this situation." It wasn't the first time Daniels weighed in on gay rights -- in 2015 after gay marriage became legal across the United States, she spoke out against the Supreme Court ruling.

Daniels, a left back, was called up to the USWNT again after the controversy in July 2018. She made the preliminary roster for the Tournament of Nations but was cut from the final squad due to the "experience and the depth and the versatility" of the other players on the roster, coach Jill Ellis said.

Daniels said her choice to decline the 2017 call-up meant she was "essentially giving up the one dream little girls dream about their entire life," which earned pushback from members of the USWNT.

"Your religion was never the problem," USWNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris wrote in 2019 after Daniels' story went viral following the Women's World Cup. "The problem is your intolerance and you are homophobic. You don't belong in a sport that aims to unite and bring people together."

"Don't you dare say our team is 'not a welcoming place for Christians.' You weren't around long enough to know what this team stood for," Harris added. "This is actually an insult to the Christians on our team."

Daniels played in North Carolina for four seasons under coach Paul Riley, who stood by her amid backlash from her remarks on television. Riley was fired in September, after public allegations from two former players of sexual misconduct, and he was replaced by Sean Nahas.