- The Washington Spirit soccer club held a “Service Member Appreciation Night” on Sunday.
- The club invited former CIA and NSA Director Gen. Michael Hayden as a “distinguished guest.”
- Fans protested the move, publicly calling on the owner to sell the team with chants and banners.
Washington Spirit ownership is in a battle with its fanbase after a controversial decision to honor retired General Michael Hayden.
The National Women’s Soccer League club held a “Service Member Appreciation Night” during its game on Sunday, and front-office leaders chose to Hayden as a “distinguished guest.”
Hayden, an Air Force veteran, served as both National Security Agency chief and Central Intelligence Agency director under President George W. Bush. During that time, he oversaw the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping program, which was found to be unconstitutional, and pushed for looser restrictions on CIA drone strikes in the Middle East.
—Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) August 28, 2021
Hayden also authorized the use of torture — officially referred to as “enhanced interrogation” — to elicit information from suspected terrorists. In a damning 2014 report by the Senate Intelligence Committee, he was accused of lying to and deliberately misleading Congress while testifying about the program.
Due to this history, the Spirit’s fanbase wasn’t happy that the club was honoring Hayden. Some fans made their frustration known on Twitter, where they accused the team of honoring a “war criminal” and choosing “to elevate violent, dangerous, heartless people.”
That anger carried over to the stands on Sunday night. One group brandished a banner directed at majority owner Steve Baldwin, which read “Sell The Team, Steve.” Security demanded the sign be removed, based on a request “from ownership,” The Washington Post’s Molly Hensley-Clancy reported.
—Molly Hensley-Clancy (@mollyhc) August 29, 2021
According to Hensley-Clancy, some fans also chanted “sell the team” in the final minutes of Washington’s 0-0 draw with the North Carolina Courage. Zach Everson, a writer for Forbes, noted that the jeers were “audible for those of us watching on TV.”
The Spirit did not immediately respond to Insider’s request for comment.
The blowback during Washington’s Service Member Appreciation Night came on the heels of a different scandal within the franchise. Earlier in August, longtime head coach Richie Burke was suspended from the club following allegations of verbal abuse from players.
Baldwin and Spirit ownership initially framed Burke’s departure as related to health concerns. But fans and media accused the front office of covering up the true reason after The Washington Post reported that Baldwin had been aware of allegations that Burke emotionally abused minors when he was a youth coach. Baldwin and other members of Washington’s leadership had hired him despite this knowledge.
The Post also reported that there is internal strife among members of the ownership group, making the future direction of the club uncertain. As the season winds down and the Spirit find themselves in the middle of more NWSL controversy, fans appear to be increasingly discontent with the management .