The U.S. Soccer Federation, the governing body for the sport in this country, offers a bold vision on its website, declaring it believes “in the power of soccer to unify our nation… We are stronger together, and together, we are One Nation. One Team.”
The statement may be laudable, but appears ironic given the lack of unity between the organization and members of the women’s national team, a squad that in recent years has included Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Rose Lavelle, and Captain Becky Sauerbrunn, among other outstanding talents. The Oscar-contending documentary LFG explores the ongoing legal dispute between the women players and the federation over equal pay and equal working conditions for the women’s and men’s teams.
“For us, this film is about what it means to get inside a journey where people are fighting for equality,” says Andrea Nix Fine, who directed the film with Sean Fine. “I think that’s why this film resonates beyond the equal pay discussion. I think it’s about being seen and valued… It’s not all about the money.”
The filmmakers got inside access to the legal team that filed a lawsuit in 2019 on behalf of 28 players (the list of plaintiffs has since grown to include women with the national team since 2015). The dispute, according to Molly Levinson, a spokeswoman for the players, comes down to this: “Women players have been paid at lesser rates than men who do the same job.”
In an exclusive interview with Deadline, Rapinoe says LFG, which is streaming on HBO Max, has resonated with audiences.
“I think with everyone who has seen it, it’s really been eye-opening,” Rapinoe comments. “I think that sort of moment [of recognition] amongst women of like, ‘Ugh, me too! This is what we go through.’ Just to provide that little window ‘in’ I think was really important, not just for women, I think for men as well.”
The women players contend the current collective bargaining agreement between them and USSF was unfair because the federation never offered the women what the men’s team was offered. That CBA expires at the end of this month, and the federation says it wants a future agreement to offer identical terms for the women’s and men’s teams. But in their lawsuit, the women are also seeking $67 million in back pay and damages. The USSF has pushed back strongly on that and other key elements of the litigation, much to the dismay of Rapinoe and other players.
“It will never not shock me and sadden me the resistance that we’ve come up against with U.S. Soccer,” Rapinoe says. “Not to say that everything we say is the almighty truth and everything they say is a lie, but it’s shocking to me every time and it’s hurtful in a lot of ways. I think it’s bad business. I think it’s a bad business decision. I think it’s been to the detriment not only of our team, but to the entire brand of U.S. Soccer and the growth of the game.”
In May 2020 Judge Gary Klausner dismissed the unequal pay claim asserted by the women players, finding the federation had actually paid women’s team members more than their male counterparts, “on both a cumulative and an average per-game basis,” for the period covered by the lawsuit.
Following that ruling, the USSF and the women players settled their dispute over working conditions. But the women are fighting the judge’s decision on the critical question of equal pay.
“They’re appealing the judge’s ruling and going forward,” director Sean Fine says. “They’re not stopping.”
In terms of the public relations battle, there is little question the women have won. At competitions involving the U.S. Women’s National Team, crowds often break into a chant of “Equal pay! Equal pay!” LFG also bolsters the women’s point of view. But, according to the USSF, the film contains gross distortions.
After LFG debuted on HBO Max, the federation dispatched a lengthy Twitter thread that said, in part, “In the new movie LFG, there is a concerning level of dishonesty about U.S. Soccer and the USWNT’s compensation that we feel must be addressed. Specifically, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler presents a misleading and inaccurate account of the facts… Kessler’s own admission in the movie that certain things he says are ‘a little bit of an exaggeration’ pertains to a lot of the misleading information he presents, conveniently without context or specific details.”
One area of at least partial agreement between the federation and the women’s national team players focuses on hugely unequal prize money paid by FIFA, international soccer’s governing body that is responsible for putting on World Cup competitions. FIFA will offer $440 million in prize money to men’s teams participating in the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, but only $60 million for women’s teams taking part in the 2023 Women’s World Cup (a doubling of the $30 million paid out for the 2019 Women’s World Cup).
Both the women players and the USSF call that prize differential unfair, but USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone, herself a former women’s national team player, contends, “We can’t unilaterally resolve that” dollar imbalance.
In a statement to fans in September, Cone wrote, “The massive discrepancy in FIFA World Cup prize money is by far the most challenging issue we continue to face in our parallel negotiations with the men’s and women’s national teams. While FIFA has made some impactful investments in the women’s game, the discrepancy in prize money remains stark. FIFA alone controls those funds, and U.S. Soccer is legally obligated to distribute those funds based on our current negotiated collective bargaining agreements with the men’s and women’s teams.”
Rapinoe says there’s more to it than that.
“If you just take the FIFA prize money out, you [the federation] still underpaid us in a lot of other avenues that are directly under your control,” Rapinoe insists. “They might be able to use the FIFA argument for strictly the prize money for winning the World Cup. But there’s a lot of other areas where we’ve been knowingly and purposely paid less over the course of, really, our entire careers… I just think that’s disingenuous of them to pin that all on FIFA when they know full well that they never offered us the package, in terms of total compensation, that they offered the men.”
One thing that can’t be disputed–the women’s national team has enjoyed much more success in international competition than the U.S. men’s team. Among its many accomplishments, the women’s team has won four World Cups since 1991 and four Olympic Gold Medals since 1996. But last summer at Tokyo Summer Games, the women came away with a disappointing bronze medal (the U.S. men’s team failed to qualify for the Olympics for the third consecutive Games).
Deadline asked Rapinoe whether the drawn out litigation over pay had contributed to the women’s failure to win gold.
“I very much hesitate to give any excuse for lack of good performance,” Rapinoe replied. “We’ve obviously had a lot of pressure on us in the past and have performed very well. That hasn’t been an issue, so I don’t see that. But what I will say is there is a finite amount of energy. There is a finite amount of emotion and energy and all of that, that we have to juggle… No, I don’t think that our lawsuit was the reason that we performed so poorly at the Olympics, but I also think that it does take a toll. It is exhausting.”
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