The elephant in North Carolina

When the rumors began that the reigning NWSL champion Western New York Flash would be moved from Rochester and rebranded in a new city, a fair number of us assumed the team would land on the west coast, perhaps in Los Angeles or Vancouver.

Nope.

North Carolina.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for so many reasons. The Western New York club had survived three iterations of women’s professional soccer but, by many accounts, were losing money even as they gained a championship in NWSL’s fourth season. The Flash had sold both season and single-game tickets until just days ago and had signed a player the day before the story of the team’s potential move broke late last week. But the deal is done and the franchise will now move to Cary, North Carolina, joining the recently rebranded former-Railhawks in what many consider a hotbed of soccer player development.

But the elephant in the room is a pretty substantial elephant even insofar as elephants go.

In March of 2016, North Carolina lawmakers passed House Bill 2, the “Bathroom Bill,” eliminating protections previously in place preventing discrimination against people based on their LGBT status. Businesses have canceled expansions in North Carolina, musicians have canceled concerts, the NBA moved the All Star Game from Charlotte, and the NCAA revoked hosting rights for seven upcoming tournaments and championships from the state.

For a league with a not insignificant number of out and proud LGBT players and supporters, North Carolina does not seem to be the most welcoming of hosts.

“We’re certainly understanding of the issues around the legislation in North Carolina, but we feel strongly that the right way to address it is to be an active participant in showing how to go forward in an inclusive way and to celebrate inclusiveness,” NWSL commissioner Jeff Plush said Tuesday night.

“It was a consideration, certainly,” Plush said. “The way to try and promote change is by being involved and to put light and heat on things. The country is at an interesting point and we have the opportunity to be a proactive member of a community. We take that opportunity and responsibility seriously.”

“North Carolina FC already operates with an eye toward inclusiveness and has held Pride Nights and has worked in lock-step with the governor in efforts to fundraise…Equality North Carolina was at the event yesterday and are huge supporters of ours and what we’re trying to do. I think the marketplace will be overwhelmingly positive and supportive and we’re enthusiastic about the opportunity to provide a platform that our players and fans can be excited about.

“Just because some people made some efforts to pass a law that maybe isn’t the right law doesn’t mean the community isn’t full of people who are right-minded and who want to be a community that celebrates everyone.”

With the North Carolina bill currently on the books and another, similar piece of legislation recently introduced in Texas, Plush knows questions about inclusivity and equality will persist.

“The reality is that we don’t know what the future holds and what potential legislation is out there. We need to collaborate and work in unison….to bring it back to a soccer term, we have to be on the front foot about the types of communities we want to be a part of. I think most places in this country are overwhelmingly positive and collaborative and want to do the right thing. We have to assert what we want to have happen and be very committed and have conviction in what we believe. We’re excited about our future and we’re proud of the role we’re going to play.”