At one point, the team’s lead counsel, Jeffrey Kessler, outlines the USSF’s position in the gender-discrimination case and the players’ side. No one outside the plaintiff’s circles was interviewed, except TV analyst Julie Foudy, a former player. Nary an expert on sports law appears.
The film is strictly from the perspective of the players and their legal team, a behind-the-scenes peek at a gender discrimination lawsuit filed in the buildup to the 2019 World Cup and one that continues today.
The USSF told The Washington Post it declined interview requests from the filmmakers because it wasn’t approached until late in the production. The organization also said it wasn’t given details about the film’s contents and was wary about going in blind.
“The approach taken by the filmmakers made us feel there wasn’t a sincere desire to fairly include information from the federation,” USSF spokesman Neil Buethe said.
Carlos Cordeiro, the USSF’s president when the team filed the lawsuit, was invited separately. He, too, declined the interview request, echoing the federation’s statement.
The documentary debuted at Tribeca Film Festival this past week and, starting Thursday, is available on HBO Max. Six players, headlined by Megan Rapinoe, participated.
Without balance, though, the film does little justice to a complex case, which is at the appellate level after a judge sided with the federation in May 2020. The sides have since reached an out-of-court settlement on one aspect of the lawsuit: working conditions, which include transportation, hotels and support staff.
However, the players continue to seek almost $67 million in back pay and damages, a figure USSF President Cindy Parlow Cone said this month is “untenable and would likely bankrupt the federation.”
Comparing compensation for the U.S. men’s and women’s teams is difficult because they have different collective bargaining agreements with the federation. The women are on full-time salaries; the men are not.
Parlow Cone said she is hopeful the sides will reach a settlement before the appeal is heard.
FIFA is in the background of this struggle. Soccer’s international governing body rewarded France $38 million for capturing the 2018 men’s title. A year later, the United States received $4 million for claiming the women’s championship. In rewarding its players, the USSF says its hands are tied because of the paltry FIFA payout.
The federation, Rapinoe concedes in the film, has done more for women’s soccer than any other national governing body. But, she added, “Just because you’re better than someone who’s bad doesn’t necessarily mean you’re good.”
And the film highlights the USSF’s missteps: an awkward speech from Cordeiro at the World Cup celebration in New York; the disclosure of the federation hiring lobbyists in Washington; and, most damaging, the USSF’s argument in court documents that the men’s team “requires a higher level of skill” than its female counterparts.
(In the wake of the latter issue, Cordeiro resigned and the firm that made that case, Seyfarth Shaw, was let go.)
The documentary does have redeeming qualities: World Cup video rekindles the thrill of the second consecutive U.S. championship, and the players’ interactions with fans of all ages are a reminder of their rock-star status.
Those who love this team will undoubtedly be inspired by the players’ commitment to fairness — both for themselves and the women’s game globally — and by their insatiable hunger for excellence.
Their courage to go against the sport’s governing body, causing distraction before the World Cup and disruption to their daily lives thereafter, is admirable.
The documentary attempts to humanize the legal effort, telling the personal backstories of Rapinoe and forward Jessica McDonald. But even there, the film misses. McDonald, a single mother, describes her struggles to make ends meet by working offseason jobs and living with a host family during her National Women’s Soccer League career.
It is compelling but misleading because it conflates the national team’s legal case with the NWSL’s low salaries. U.S. World Cup players earned almost $300,000 apiece in bonuses in 2019.
The film is entertaining and engaging with its use of field-level video of matches and scenes from watch parties. It shows Rapinoe locking horns with Donald Trump on social media and the championship parade snaking through New York. McDonald’s bond with her son is precious.
The “Equal Pay” cry, unleashed by fans in World Cup cities and back home, echoes throughout the film.
The players make a sobering case for better treatment, citing TV ratings, ticket sales, revenue and, oh yes, an unmatched number of major trophies.
However, the second half of the film is bogged down by video conferences involving backroom legal strategy, players and their representatives texting in the back of cars en route to mediation sessions, and shots of office towers.
Two months into the pandemic, when the judge rules against the players, tears are shared via Zoom.
The filmmakers should be commended for telling an important story. Unfortunately, it’s missing a few chapters.
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