Movies

'LFG' Filmmakers on the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team's Battle for Equal Pay

Like working women everywhere, the players of the U.S. women’s national soccer team are tired — tired of fighting against structural discrimination.

“It’s like Whac-A-Mole — it’s like whack-a-sexist, basically,” team captain and activist Megan Rapinoe says in the new documentary LFG, which started streaming yesterday on HBO Max. “Every time you get one, something else pops up…. You have to prove that they did it, and then call them out on it, and then continue to police them, and that’s the exhausting part I think. The continual policing and explaining why that’s not acceptable behavior and like, how we can move forward.”

Directed by married filmmakers Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, LFG — which stands for team rallying cry “Let’s fucking go” — chronicles the women’s national team as they pursue a gender discrimination lawsuit against their employer, the United States Soccer Federation. 

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Jeffrey Kessler, the team’s lead counsel, says in the film that the women would have made an estimated additional $60 million or more over the past four years if they’d been given the same deal as the players on the men’s team. “This is not a question of apples and oranges,” Kessler tells the camera. “This is…women doing the same job as the men for the same employer on the same size field under the same rules, except they do it better and get paid less.” 

The documentary lays out the argument: The women’s team wins more often than the men, and since their 2015 World Cup victory they have brought in more revenue for the federation than the men; but players are rewarded less than their male counterparts for each achievement. 

Filmmakers got inside access to several players, with Rapinoe and Jessica McDonald emerging as main characters, documenting their lives and family stories outside the sport — McDonald as a mother raising a young son and Rapinoe as the daughter of a middle-class family that has survived the ravages of the opioid crisis. The issues of inequality in the sport extend beyond just the USSF: McDonald shares that at an earlier stage in her athletic career, she had a second job packing boxes for Amazon to make ends meet. She’s shown coaching kids for extra money, even as she prepares for a championship game with the National Women’s Soccer League. 

Interspersing footage of the women’s team kicking butt on the field with their ongoing legal battle — seven-hour depositions, mediation sessions that they said led nowhere — the film presents women at the top of their industry who are still struggling with its governing body for parity, even as crowds chant “equal pay” in their support. 

In May 2020, a judge ruled against the women’s team, rejecting key parts of their lawsuit. The players have sought an appeal and the case continues, even as many of the same women prepare for competition in the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Nix Fine and Fine hope their documentary will help urge the federation to get on the right side of history.

“The moment is now to look inside and figure out whatever discrimination is there, rectify it and move on together,” Nix Fine says. “The women don’t want to [fight this battle] anymore, but they won’t give up. They’re tired, but they’re so resolved to follow this through.”

Why did you decide to make this film, especially as it was just unfolding in real time?
Nix Fine: It started out really just as the lawsuit dropped. We were fans of the women’s soccer teams and celebrated them as tremendous athletes and personalities, and as soon as you start looking into [the lawsuit], you realize the world celebrates them, [but] they don’t value them. This fight turned out to be a lot longer in the tooth than I ever would have fathomed. I think it was also the timing of this year. The idea of justice and equality and women’s value is really being looked on. This is a film of the moment. And these women are great characters. We weren’t sure where the ride was going to go, but we wanted in, and to do it from the inside of what it felt like to go through this experience.

Fine: Our style is to have people tell their own stories. As filmmakers and directors, we get tired of other people telling people’s stories for them. It seems to happen a lot with people that are fighting for something, that other people tell their story. 

So what happened when you tried to tell this story from the inside?
Fine: It wasn’t supereasy to get inside of that team. There’s a lot of layers around them, so to peel the onion to get inside was a task. We first talked to Megan Rapinoe about it. She had just come back from the World Cup and literally just got off the airplane, and we were having coffee in a hotel with her and telling her the style and the way we’d like to tell it. And she’s just like, “I’m in. But that doesn’t mean the team’s in, and you’re going to have to ask the team.” And she was like, “I also won’t do it if it’s just about me, ’cause it’s not about me.” So that led us on this journey to start gathering other characters. And slowly but surely, they started hearing what we were doing and started talking with us. 

What struck you most about the players’ situation as you began working with them?
As we started to kind of embed with them, I personally started to feel how much they were undervalued. And every time a headline would come out [like the USSF hiring lobbyists to argue the team isn’t underpaid and later, arguing in court filings that science proves women soccer players are inferior to men], we’d get to hear how what happened in the news affected them, how that makes you value yourself as a person when those things come out in the press. And that year [2019] they won the World Cup. This is like their year to shine. They’re the best soccer players in the United States, men and women. Everybody should be watching them. And their year to shine is full of, like, horrible attacks in the press from U.S. soccer, things they learn that U.S. soccer is doing, how they’re characterizing them because of this lawsuit. I can’t imagine what that must feel like and how you value yourself when you’re about to step on the field for your employer. And so I think being on that ride with them, understanding those things for a whole year was really eye-opening to us. 

Something else that really stands out is how deeply involved the players themselves are in their own legal fight. Was that surprising to you?
Totally. I think it was because you sort of assume they’re going to have a fat-cat lawyer team that was going to tell them what to think, what to agree on. And of course, the lawyers give advice, but these are not the kind of women that don’t know what they want. And they’re all so smart and so needing to feel like they understand every single piece of this, and [they] want to drive the bus on this legal argument. 

And you don’t just show the victorious moments. There’s a lot of vulnerability and loss in this story.
Nix Fine: That was sort of the trust part we had to go through, to let us in the harder parts, the times when you’re exhausted. 

Fine: It takes a lot of courage to allow our cameras to be there, for me literally to be inches from Megan’s face when she’s about to go into [a] deposition and she’s quite worried and it’s like five thirty in the morning and she hasn’t slept. The other day [at the Tribeca Film Festival premiere] she was telling us, “I get it now. I get why you were so close. I don’t have to say it. You see it in my face. You see that I’m tired, and hopeful.” Those were important moments.

Nix Fine: And female athletes, the media loves to show them with their hands on hips or in superhero poses. I always find it interesting, you never see the women flop — for those who [don’t] follow soccer, flopping is the histrionic fake injuries that a lot of male soccer players and teams use almost as a tactic — because the last thing women athletes want to be accused of is being weak. But this [legal fight] is [that] dirty work, and what that lack of value and lack of respect feels like. For these women, it took a lot for them to [be open with] these small moments that are so guarded and protected by this sisterhood. This is the hard stuff.

Some of the most powerful footage came during Covid, when you weren’t even able to be with your subjects, like the scene where the women are on Zoom learning that the judge has ruled against them. There’s no audio of their lawyers, for legal reasons, but it’s still so impactful. What was it like working through Covid times and capturing some of those big scenes remotely?
Fine: When [Covid] happened, I think we all were like, “What’s really important in our lives? What’s important to be talking about right now?” Like, people are dying everywhere. The women can’t play sports. In a way, it allowed us to have some of those conversations with them, and they were a little bit more accessible because they weren’t playing.  

We figured out a way to make these little camera packages to send to every player who was in the film, but when we sent them out, you never know what you’re going to get. It’s like fishing.

Nix Fine: For the summary judgment we told them, “Please, if you would, please record this moment. We can talk about it after, how we all feel about it, but please just record it. The world will want to know how you feel right now.” And they did it. And of course, we worked with the legal sensitivities, as we always did throughout this whole thing, making sure you do no harm to your subjects’ cause.

Fine: Just watching their faces react to that summary judgment, you really feel what a kick in the gut it was without them having to say it. 

You disclose in the film that the U.S. Soccer Federation wouldn’t speak with you for the project. What would you have wanted to talk to them about if they’d agreed?
Nix Fine: What we wanted to talk to them about is, hey, you have a new president [Cindy Parlow Cone took over in March 2020 following Carlos Cordeiro’s abrupt resignation], and she’s a former player. It’s been a hell of a year. At this moment in time, I wanted to know what her vision was going forward. She’s inheriting a pretty interesting history that she’s included in. I think it would be really lovely having her speak to that and where she wants the federation to go. Had they let us in, it could have been a different film. It was another moment that wasn’t embraced. We still stand behind every single piece of research — the documents and data [about what the players earn]. Those are their own publicly filed records in the court and their own background financials. The numbers speak volumes. 

As the team moves through the appeals process, what are you hoping this documentary will achieve?
Fine: We want this documentary to change the conversation, change the fight. I mean, we’d love there to be equal pay, and we would like them to be able to sit down and do it sooner than later. I think it would be an unbelievable achievement that would inspire others. Equality is a big conversation that we’re all having right now, all the time. How do you value the person sitting across from you or the person you’re talking to? I’m hoping this film will affect that.  

Nix Fine: I also hope it promotes people to ask a different set of questions when someone is criticizing a woman athlete for asking to be valued or someone’s criticizing an employee about wanting to be paid what they feel is deserved. I think a lot of women are going to really enjoy seeing this and just sort of put some jet fuel in their sense of what they justly deserve.

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