Inside the fight for pay equality with Megan Rapinoe in the HBO Max documentary ‘LFG’

US Women Soccer players Megan Rapinoe and Jessica McDonald
Megan Rapinoe, left, and Jessica McDonald are two of the U.S. Women’s national soccer team players featured in the new equal pay documentary “LFG.”
(Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times)
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Jessica McDonald was driving her 9-year-old around this week when he suddenly started speaking passionately about his feminist beliefs.

“Mommy,” her son Jeremiah said from the back of the Chevy Tahoe, “it’s really unfair that you and Megan Rapinoe have more trophies and more medals than the men and they still get more money than you. You should be getting paid more than the boys.”

Jeremiah and his mom — a forward on the U.S. Women’s national soccer team — had only just returned to North Carolina from New York. There, they’d attended the Tribeca Film Festival premiere of “LFG,” a documentary about the WNT’s ongoing legal battle with U.S. Soccer over pay equity. (“LFG” is short for “Let’s f— go!” — the team’s rallying cry.) In March 2019, 28 members of the team filed a class-action lawsuit against the federation, arguing they’d been subjected to “institutionalized gender discrimination” because they were given lesser paychecks, travel accommodations and field conditions than their male counterparts.

McDonald was part of the lawsuit, the majority of which was dismissed in May 2020 by a California federal judge who rejected the argument that the female athletes were underpaid. She never really explained any of it to Jeremiah — the depositions, the recent effort to appeal last year’s summary judgment — because, well, he’s 9.

“But watching the film, he grasped onto all of it and comprehended everything that was going on,” McDonald said. “And I think that’s the importance of this film — that no matter who you are on earth, if you feel you’re being paid unfairly, whatever career you’re in, you fight. Because that’s the right thing to do.”

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McDonald is one of the central figures in “LFG,” which was released Thursday on HBO Max. Though a handful of her teammates participated in the documentary — Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara — her story exemplifies the difficulty a player can have making a living solely off a WNT salary. Since joining the national team in 2016, the 33-year-old has continued to play for her club team, the North Carolina Courage, and co-owns a company called Soccer Resilience, which focuses on mental training for young athletes. In the offseason, she also runs soccer camps for kids and works as a private coach.

“If my salary was better, maybe I wouldn’t have had to live with my family in North Carolina, or could have hired a nanny to teach my son on the road so he could have traveled with me,” said McDonald. “I think the film could be eye-opening in showing the realness and the struggle of just being a mom and trying to make ends meet.”

An audience in Adirondack chairs see a movie
Jessica McDonald and her son, Jeremiah, watch “LFG” at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last week.
(Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times)

The idea for “LFG” originated a couple of years ago, just weeks after the WNT filed suit against the federation. Husband-and-wife filmmaking team Andrea Nix Fine and Sean Fine noticed the groundswell of public support for the women, but also observed how many were misunderstanding the complicated legal situation. Their hope was to tell the story of the equal pay fight from the inside, embedding with the team to document what it’s like to be a professional athlete who is suing the organization she works for.

“We made our first pitch to Megan, because she had kind of become the mouthpiece for the team,” said Fine, referring to Rapinoe, who had just been awarded the Golden Boot at the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. “It starts with the color of her hair, which is like a beacon — a highlighter. We’d seen her rise being more vocal and expressive, challenging Trump and being that one player out there in the public kind of rattling the cages to get people to keep talking about important issues.”

In 2012, Rapinoe came out as a lesbian, becoming one of the first openly gay players on the national team. In 2016, she took a knee on the field during the national anthem in solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, prompting U.S. Soccer to issue a retaliatory statement noting the “expectation” that players should stand “as part of the privilege to represent your country.” In 2019, Rapinoe said she would not visit the White House if the WNT won the World Cup, inspiring President Trump to tweet that Rapinoe “should never disrespect our country, the White House or our flag.”

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Megan Rapinoe has no problem speaking truth to power.

So when the team embarked on their pay equity battle, Rapinoe immediately began speaking out about the lawsuit, sitting for interviews with Rachel Maddow, Terry Gross and Savannah Guthrie. Rapinoe, now 35, said she felt she needed to use her platform to promote the issue, particularly because she earns money from sponsorships with companies like Nike, Samsung and Procter & Gamble.

“Of course, I’m way more famous now than I ever was, and that comes with a lot of financial gain,” she acknowledged. “So to just take that and then not be willing to do my part to talk about it? That would just be kind of the ultimate jerk move. I think that would be pretty selfish. I struggle with the fact that it’s a little bit unfair that really only a couple of players get to benefit in all this upside.”

When Rapinoe first met with the Fines in July 2019, she only had a few minutes for coffee before attending a New York City ticker-tape parade to celebrate the World Cup win. The filmmakers made their pitch, but were also candid about the time commitment they were looking for.

“This isn’t a sports promo,” Fine said he told her. “Your interviews are gonna be five, 10 hours long sometimes. We want to show you warts-and-all.”

Sean Fine, left, and Andrea Nix Fine at the Tribeca Film Festival
Co-directors Sean Fine, left, and Andrea Nix Fine told the soccer players that they wanted to show them on-screen “warts and all.”
(Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times)

Rapinoe — who said she and the team had previously received “a thousand pitches about behind-the-scenes kinds of shows” — responded to the idea of a raw approach. “I liked the idea of pulling back the curtain and detailing how much work and energy it requires to go through this fight — that was kind of the selling point for me,” she said.

Even though Rapinoe was on board, she made it clear that it would be up to the directors to individually convince her teammates to participate. The filmmakers also had to approach the WNT’s legal counsel, setting ground rules to make sure the documentary didn’t jeopardize the lawsuit. Additionally, they tried repeatedly to secure the participation of U.S. Soccer, but the federation declined, meaning cameras would not be allowed at practices or games.

The COVID-19 pandemic complicated matters further. The Olympics were potentially going to be put on hold and major milestones were still unfolding in the legal case, so the Fines sent players cameras and asked them to film themselves whenever any important decisions came down.

“I was really uncomfortable with that at first, because I’m the cinematographer on all of our projects,” said Fine. “And they’ve got a lawsuit, COVID, training to stay in shape and then, ‘Hey, here’s a camera, please figure out how to shoot something with the best lighting and upload the footage to us on a secure server.’ It was a big ask, and we’d just get, like, a thumbs-up emoji back on text and had to hope it would all work out.”

Megan Rapinoe
Rapinoe holds the trophy after winning the Women’s World Cup final soccer match against The Netherlands at the Stade de Lyon in Decines, outside Lyon, France on July 7, 2019.
(Claude Paris/Associated PRess)
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Rapinoe, for one, admitted she was already feeling overwhelmed when the ask came in.

“We’re trying to prepare for games and tournaments leading up to the Olympics, and you want to be able to relax on game days, but instead you have to figure out what kind of protest you want to have because the federation has said something that’s absolutely disgusting or egregious in their brief,” she said. “That requires a team meeting, talking to the coach, calling our media person, calling our lawyers. And it’s not just talking to the media — it’s getting your notes right, making sure your talking points are good, constantly being educated on legalese. I would have much preferred to spend my time doing about anything else.”

One especially difficult period for Rapinoe and her teammates came in March 2020, when the federation said in court documents that male soccer players “require materially more strength and speed” and also carry “more responsibility” than WNT players. Though U.S. Soccer later apologized for the remarks, McDonald recalled feeling like the comments were a “total slap in the face. All the work we put in for our employer, and then they say that? It was very disrespectful.”

“This isn’t just an abstract thing we’re fighting — it’s our lives,” added Rapinoe. “This is the way we’ve been treated for years. To go play your heart out, win championships and still have these things said about you? It takes an emotional toll.”

Rapinoe is quick to counter her statement with an acknowledgment of her privilege. Because the WNT has the microphone, she feels it’s their role to spotlight an issue that affects women worldwide. And she’s heartened by the female athletes internationally who have been encouraged to ask for equal pay as a result of the WNT’s lawsuit.

“But when we’ve come off a grueling World Cup, it would be nice to just kick back at a f— pool and not have to do anything, you know?” she said with a laugh. “When you see a men’s team win a championship, they literally don’t have to do anything except be drunk and scream ‘Woo-hoo!’ We have to prepare speeches and talk about why we deserve to be treated equally. Of course it’s not fair, but we’re women and we’re underpaid, so it just is what it is.”

Rapinoe and McDonald hope 'LFG' will bring more attention to pay equity
Rapinoe, left, and McDonald hope “LFG” will bring more attention to pay equity in and outside of the athletic world.
(Jennifer S. Altman/For The Times)

It’s a sentiment that Nix Fine thinks many women will respond to in “LFG,” nodding their heads and saying: “Been there, felt that.” And her husband hopes the movie will urge men to reevaluate their role in the workplace.

“Even now, I question things differently, walking in to pitch a film or talk to an investor — Andrea explained to me that when we walk in, she has to prove to them she’s valued, and they look at me and I’m already valued,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize how hard women professional athletes have to work to be the best at what they do. If you say LeBron James works hard, it’s like, ‘Of course! He’s amazing!’ But imagine having a full-time job to be a champion, then working another job on top of that and being stressed about paying the rent.”

Rapinoe, meanwhile, isn’t optimistic that anyone involved in the legal proceedings will be watching the film on HBO Max, but she does think public sentiment could have a positive impact on the case moving forward. And as for having her bank account discussed so openly? She’s all for it.

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“Our society has one way that lets you know that you’re valued, and that’s how much you’re paid,” she said. “In male sports, that’s the peacocking — all the salaries and endorsements are out there. It’s kind of interesting how women are the only ones who feel they have to keep quiet or feel like it’s not polite to share their salary. I think that’s just stupid. Without transparency, you just keep money in the hands of people who have it.”