‘We’re fighting for all women’: the equal pay battle for female footballers

he beautiful game has an unsightly underbelly. The examples are multitude: 그만큼 racism that pervades the sport, the bribery and corruption allegations that swirl around the World Cup host selection process and the awarding of the event’s broadcast rights, 그만큼 greed-driven conception of the European Super League.

The new documentary LFG looks at yet another facet of soccer’s ugliness: the equal-pay battle between the United States Soccer Federation (also known as US Soccer) and its women’s national team.

Oscar, Peabody, and Emmy winners Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine open their latest film with the gender-discrimination class-action lawsuit filed in March 2019 by the members of one of the most successful teams in sports history against their employer, the federation. LFG closely tracks six players (including star and former captain Megan Rapinoe) over the next year, as “equal pay for equal work” becomes a literal rallying cry for women everywhere who relate to being paid less than their male counterparts and having to prove their worth.

그만큼 lawsuit, alleging years of unequal treatment and compensation, stunned the world just three months before the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup. The Fines – whose previous films have centered on refugee children, homeless undocumented youth, and a child with a rare and fatal ageing disease – saw it as a story ripe to be told. “Our earlier films have been about struggle, about fights, about taking on a bad guy, and transcendence. We immediately were like, This is in our wheelhouse.”

They began planning for the film shortly after the suit was filed and almost immediately encountered problems with access. Not only was the team thoroughly sequestered in World Cup training, but filming on US Soccer’s turf was off-limits to them. “I don’t think the US Soccer Federation wanted this film to be made,” Sean told the Guardian. (US Soccer declined to participate in any on-camera interviews for the film, and this week it expressed objections to the film in a series of tweets.)

“I don’t think they are very excited about it now. They hold the access to filming these women behind the scenes and out on the fields, and they made it very clear to us that if this film was about equal pay, they wouldn’t allow that to happen.” (Remarkably, one of the producers identified a loophole involving two games that US Soccer didn’t control: “We brought out the big guns for them,” including a cinematographer from NFL Films – the gold standard of sports photography – who shot slow-motion with a Phantom ultra-high-speed camera, Sean says, adding that the footage was critical to the film.)

When the team emerged victorious at that year’s World Cup after a record-breaking run, the Fines first approached Rapinoe with their idea, straight off her flight back from France and moments before the team’s ticker-tape parade in downtown New York City. Rapinoe said she was all in but that she didn’t speak for her teammates. The Fines then approached the players one by one, and more agreed to participate, including Jessica McDonald, who had just made her first World Cup squad that year. “I didn’t even hesitate,” McDonald told the Guardian. “I knew the importance of this film. This is a movement, this is something historical. Once Andrea and Sean told me their vision, I totally trusted this was going to skyrocket.”

McDonald was the only mother on that team. “It’s a position that I’m so used to being in," 그녀는 말한다. “You don’t hear about very many moms as pro athletes, and one of the reasons is because of the pay.” The film shows her teaching children the sport to make ends meet.

The problem goes back decades, as soccer commentator and captain of the 1999 World Cup-winning USWNT team Julie Foudy points out in the film. “A lot of the mindset back then was, ‘You should just be grateful, darlin’, that you have a place to play,’” she says, detailing the $10 per day stipend, ill-fitting uniforms, hotel rooms with cockroaches, and long commercial flights without assigned seats.

McDonald recalls the horror stories relayed to her from the ’99 team. “Man, some were patching up their own jersey numbers on the bus heading to a game.” She attributes the modest progress on pay equity since then to the sport’s rise in popularity and the power of social media, where each player has a platform to speak directly to their fans. “The women’s game now is so big in comparison to when the 99ers played. The support that we have globally has absolutely risen. It’s not just a few people in the United States – the world has our back.”

In LFG, the players are seen devoting their scant off-hours to preparing for the case, applying their tenacity and focus to legal affairs. “They’re fiercely individual, but when they come together collectively, they have this secret sauce,” marvels Andrea. “It’s just amazing what they do, whether it’s working on a lawsuit or stepping out on the field. I’ve never made a film that showcases so many powerful women who are such astonishingly amazing role models.”

With the film still in production when the pandemic hit, the Fines scrambled to dispatch cameras for players to record themselves. The players and film-makers also questioned the project itself during 2020’s darkest days. “Is this important right now?” Sean recalls thinking, as Covid concerns slid into the George Floyd demonstrations.

Yet now the film surprisingly seems to have found its moment, especially with discussions about women leaving the workforce 그리고 additional unpaid labor they’ve done at home this past year. “The zeitgeist of this moment actually turned out to be the whole idea of equality and value and how we treat others and what’s right,” Andrea says. “It’s actually a pretty amazing time for people to be thinking about this and for these women to express themselves the way they did.”

She hopes that the “been-there-felt-that sentiment” resonates: “You don’t have to be an athlete – you just have to be someone who has ever been dismissed, underestimated, or under-appreciated, and you’ll see that the film speaks to you.”

As one of just two men in the crew, Sean, for one, became more attuned to the micro ways people treat him and Andrea, his wife, differently. “If it’s visual or camera related, they turn to me, or if it’s wardrobe related, they turn Andrea. It’s devaluing by a million paper cuts. I’ve learned through this process that even I need to be more vocal about that.”

The film ends somewhat dispiritingly, with a federal district judge throwing out the team’s unequal pay claims last May. (The players are appealing that decision.) The Fines debated whether to continue filming, especially with the world’s eyes likely to be on the team as the favorites to win gold at next month’s Olympics. “There’s a saying in film-making: you don’t finish a film, you abandon it,” Sean says. He points out that the team has come full circle from the film’s opening sequence in 2019, hoping once more that their performance on the world stage becomes another galvanizing moment for their cause.

And it’s clear that the team’s campaign for equality will continue, regardless of the cameras’ presence. “They’re not going to give up,” Sean says. “By the end of the film, you understand that when they say they’re going to keep fighting, they are going to keep fighting.”

McDonald attended the film’s world premiere at the Tribeca film festival earlier this month and was heartened by the live audience’s reaction. “It’s nice to see people understanding more in-depth what’s really going on. Hopefully this will shake up our employer and their lawyers and the judges and anybody else who’s against us, because this film speaks truth.”

“I’ve got tunnel vision for this fight,” she continues. “None of us are stopping until we win it all. We’re fighting for all women. We’re fighting for the little girls who want to be in our shoes one day. I’m proud of that. I will probably never be compared to Alex Morgan or Megan Rapinoe, but I know I’ll have been part of this historical movement, and that’s good enough for me.”

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