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Courage waive Jaelene Daniels after controversial return to NWSL

The North Carolina Courage have waived defender Jaelene Daniels. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Jaelene Daniels and the North Carolina Courage have parted ways again after the club declined a team option on her contract for the 2023 season.

The defender retired from the NWSL in 2020 but returned to the league last December when she re-signed with the Courage. Daniels’ return immediately sparked backlash, as she had refused a call-up to the U.S. women’s national team in 2017 because she did not want to wear a rainbow-themed LGBTQ+ Pride jersey.

She reached out to Courage teammates and fans with a statement after her signing, saying, “My beliefs may call me to live differently, but my love runs deep for all.”

Courage owner Steve Malik defended Daniels’ signing in a statement. While the decision “sparked a lot of discussion internally, and with a cross section of fans,” the club felt she had made a “positive impact” on their “successful history,” Malik said.

Daniels, 29, started her NWSL career in 2015 with the Western New York Flash, the franchise that became the Courage in 2017. A two-time NWSL champion with the franchise in 2016 and in 2018, she announced her retirement in November 2020.

After the 2019 World Cup, her former USWNT teammate Ashlyn Harris — who is married to Ali Krieger, another of Daniels’ former USWNT teammates — slammed Daniels for her stance on the LGBTQ+ community, calling her intolerant and “homophobic.”

“You don’t belong in a sport that aims to unite and bring people together,” Harris said. “You would never fit into our pack or what this team stands for. 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. This is actually an insult to the Christians on our team.”

When Daniels returned to North Carolina ahead of the 2022 season, she did so at a time of turmoil for the franchise. Paul Riley, who had coached the Flash and then the Courage from 2016-21, was fired after the 2021 season when sexual misconduct allegations against him were made public in The Athletic.

During the 2022 season, Daniels again refused to wear a Pride jersey. The team left her off the roster for a July home match that served as the Courage’s Pride night.

“Jaelene will not be rostered tonight as she has made the decision to not wear our Pride jersey. While we’re disappointed with her choice, we respect her right to make that decision for herself,” Nikki Stoudt, North Carolina’s communications manager, said in a statement.

Courage forward Merritt Mathias issued a statement in May saying she recognized the pain that re-signing Daniels, among other decisions by the club, caused LGBTQ+ fans in particular, and that she sympathizes “as a player who is part of the community.”

“There is a group here that truly, truly loves and supports and is here for the LGBTQ community,” Mathias said.