“The story’s the same everywhere. Whether you’re an executive, whether you’re a domestic worker, whether you’re a soccer player — women get paid less to do the same job.”
As Megan Rapinoe, captain of the U.S. women’s national soccer team, makes clear, the team’s fight for equal pay is not about what happens on the field. The players, who wear four stars on their chests to signify their four World Cup wins, know that they’re the best in the world, and yet the U.S. Soccer Federation, the sport’s governing body, has argued that they are inferior to their male counterparts. Like so many powerful organizations, U.S. Soccer seems to be willing to do anything to avoid paying its female athletes fairly, even if that means allowing its name to be dragged through the mud in the process.
Much has been written about the USWNT’s gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer, but LFG, an all-access documentary on HBO Max, sheds a new light on their fight. Directed by Oscar-winning documentarians Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine, LFG begins as the players file an unprecedented class-action lawsuit against their employer in March 2019, just three months before the FIFA Women’s World Cup. Infographic-style slides explain that men’s national team players earn more per game, receive higher bonuses for ranked wins, and are awarded nearly four times more money for winning the World Cup ($9,375,000 for the men, versus $2,530,000 for the women), which, of course, has not yet happened.
With the lawsuit front of mind, the USWNT heads to France, where they dominate the competition (they famously beat Thailand 13-0 in the opening match) and take home their second consecutive World Cup. As they celebrate, “Equal Pay” chants rise up from the crowd, and the players begin to believe that their victory and the public support for their fight will finally convince the Federation to take action.
This was not the case. The players teed up U.S. Soccer for an easy goal, but the organization refused to meet the moment — or even to step onto the same playing field. Instead, it hired lobbyists to counter the players’ argument in the public sphere and issued legal filings claiming that “indisputable science” proves that playing on the women’s team requires less “skill” and “responsibility” than playing with the men. Over the next year and a half, LFG’s cameras remain trained on the players as the goodwill generated in the immediate aftermath of the World Cup dissipates, and the legal battle between the two parties intensifies.
Underscoring just how much the relationship soured, LFG opens with a title card informing viewers that “the U.S. Soccer Federation declined to participate in any on-camera interviews for this film.” The athletes are thus able to freely take aim at their employer, and while the documentary does present the Federation's argument — U.S. Soccer claims that some women were paid more than the men and that the USMNT generates more revenue, so its pay practices are not discriminatory — another infographic sequence quickly renders it moot. Yes, some women earned more in total compensation than the men, the colorful slides explain, but that's only because the USWNT played more games, was more successful, and made the World Cup, while the USMNT did not. As for the revenue question, lead counsel Jeffrey Kessler notes that from 2016 to 2018, the women actually brought in $50.8 million, compared to $49.9 million on the men’s side. “This is a question of women doing the same job as men, for the same employer, on the same size field, under the same rules, except they do it better, and get paid less,” he says, adding that, per his estimates, U.S. Soccer owes its female athletes more than $60 million for work done over the past four years.
All 23 players on the 2019 USWNT roster co-signed the lawsuit, but LFG is particularly interested in the work being done by a small cadre of Executive Committee leaders: Jess McDonald, Sam Mewis, Kelley O’Hara, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, and Becky Sauerbrunn. These six athletes appear as talking heads throughout the documentary, and they serve as mouthpieces for their fellow players, many of whom are barely earning a living wage as professional soccer players. In that regard, the push for equitable pay is personal. The players aren’t fighting for superstars like Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan; they’re fighting for women like Jess McDonald, who made just $15,000 during her first few years in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) and was forced to take a second job packing boxes at Amazon.
It would be much easier for the Executive Committee to ask for their owed back pay and move on, but the players refuse to do so, and LFG is better for it. The HBO Max documentary shines when it asks its interviewees to look to the future, to imagine a world where young girls are treated and paid equally as they pursue athletic greatness. “It’s so dangerous to teach young boys that girls aren’t as good as them,” Sam Mewis says. “It’s leading us all down this bad path to just perpetuate sexism that’s been around forever.”
Rapinoe, the undeniable star of both the USWNT and the documentary, is particularly eloquent when it comes to the universal aims of their fight. Throughout LFG, the winger is incredibly self-aware of her privilege, and she knows that most women facing workplace discrimination aren’t able to stop by the morning shows, land magazine covers, or headline a feature-length HBO Max documentary that publicizes their efforts. “This is our responsibility, to tell people what happened,” says Rapinoe. “Discriminated peoples do not have the luxury of f***ing around.”
LFG premieres Thursday June 24 on HBO Max.
Claire Spellberg Lustig is the TV Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.