Kely Nascimento DeLuca is a film-maker and producer, known for The Real Pelé, a documentary about her father Pele Nascimento, the world famous Brazilian football player. He led his team to three world cup titles and has gone down in history as one of the greatest of all time.  Kely is also currently working on a project called Women Warriors of Football which focuses on gender inequality in sports. On the eve of her gender documentary entering rough cut editing, I had a few minutes to sit with Kely to discuss her project and various gender issues confronting women in professional sports.

Obviously you’re doing amazing work with gender equality in sports. Can you summarize what your current film project focuses on? “It focuses on the life trajectory of this one Brazilian soccer player, Lais Araujo, and she has an amazingly cool story about how she got here from Brazil,  how she got a free 2-year scholarship to University of Florida and then got herself on the U20 national team. It’s a really roundabout, crazy, convoluted way that she did it and when I met her it reminded me that there is really no clear path for women. I started to research women’s soccer because I had never really thought about it before. In the end, I learned some crazy things that I could not believe were happening in the 2000’s so I decided to tell the story about it.”

Can you talk about a powerful experience you witnessed while travelling around the world to film your documentary footage? “A story I really love telling people is about how of course the women’s national team is the best female team in the world but, they’re also from America. And soccer in America is a relatively privileged sport, so there is a little bit of an eye roll when it comes to them. There is also this “thing” with women’s sports about how “what more could they want.” What I love about that is how the US women’s national team isn’t just doing it for them and the proof is that almost everywhere we went, even in Zanzibar, like a dirt field behind a mosque, these girls were playing, with or without shoes, almost everyday someone mentioned the (law)suit. All over the world people did not necessarily know the details, but they knew the women of the US were fighting for respect and they were really proud about that. People sometimes said “they’re not going to win, they signed a contract” but to those people, you’re missing the point. It’s about the fact that all together the women of this country get 4% of the sports media and they have changed that a little because now we are all talking about them. There are girls everywhere saying “yeah that’s right, they need to get paid equal.”

How does professional sports enforce gender inequality? “I think that professional sports puts a lens up to gender inequality. I think gender inequality is there and if you go to different countries, the level and type of gender inequality is directly related to how the women are treated in that country.  So in Brazil, there is one thread that everyone’s worried about, and that’s that it makes the women gay. However, it’s also how you look, is it going to make you too manly, or ruin your appearance because Brazil is totally focused on the visual. It goes across the world and touches on all the things going on with women.” 

Do you think that some professional athletes are afraid to challenge the status quo for fear of upsetting their own position in their field? “Yeah definitely, look what happened to Kapernick. You know, that’s a big warning to everyone. But I think that a lot of times women think they have nothing to lose because they are being discriminated against so much to begin with. It’s cultural too. The women I have talked to in Brazil are also very nervous because they feel they will lose the little they have. There’s a real pushback against seeming too feminist and that’s in South America. It’s still kind of as if feminist means you literally hate men, so they try to disassociate themselves from controversial things because they just want to keep playing. “

Do you think that general equality in the professional sports area is something we will see changing in this generation? “Definitely, I mean I don’t think we are going to fix it in this generation, but I think it will reflect the change in society. I think what helps is how many things are collaterally helping change things like the internet, like women can finally tell their own stories through the internet, we can show what’s going on in places, there is so much more information out there, we can express public opinion, you get to see a lot more, and all that often pressures brands, clubs and corporations to change things. So I definitely think we’ll see a big change, I don’t know how big but we can hope.” 

The world loved watching the U.S. female soccer team at the World Cup last year. Their popularity and sales did very well, but despite this, they are still paid considerably less. Even with their popularity, there is still a disconnect between  their compensation relative to men’s. What do you have to say about this? Well that’s a really good point and the thing that’s interesting, is that in terms of the World Cup, FIFA is a non-for-profit organization that enjoys non-for-profit status, meaning that they get all of their donations tax free. And they do that because they have a mission statement; to grow the sport of soccer/football around the world, equally. Therefore, technically if they receive ten dollars, they should be splitting it five and five between the men and women. That is the law that governs their tax bracket, but yet they don’t. The interesting thing is that the reason people often say that it’s not a good thing that the U.S.  women are talking about how they’re better and they win more games is because that’s not what it’s about. But it is important because people and the world do think that way. Another example I can think of is that the men’s team is allowed 50 in their delegation, everyone flies first class everywhere, while the women’s team is allowed 37 people, and they all fly the couch unless they are flying four hours or more. So the US national team would fly coach all throughout Europe for the finals and semifinals of the World Cup while showing photos of their leg room on Instagram and social media. There is no reason for that besides the fact that they are women. FIFA is not supposed to be making decisions based on profit. They are supposed to be equitable and that means on and off the field.” 

What can high schoolers, like myself, do to help on gender issues in sports? “Talk about it, post about it. You know Enzo (her youngest son) is nine, and he’s with us and most of the time he just wanted one of our phones, so what we would do is when we would get to the World Cup games, I had a deal with him. We get to our seats and get a drink or whatever and then you can have the phone until the game starts and you can have the phone halftime. You can stare at the sky if you want to but you can’t play during the game. So then we sit down with all this stuff, we are all the way up in the nosebleeds. I’m trying to put everything down so I don’t spill it and then I say “here have your phone” while the teams come out. He’s next to me and I’m putting things down, and I’m not looking at him and he’s like “wait where’s Rapinoe”. I had no idea he knew who she was and I said “what do you mean” and then he repeated “where’s Rapinoe, are they not putting her in.” I’m like, what are you talking about and he goes “do you think she’s hurt, I don’t even see her on the bench” and I realized that it was just literally from hearing people talk. It was from being on the trains and hearing people talk, being in our air bnb and hearing people talk, being on his phone and hearing people talk. That’s the power of representation,  it’s just about retweeting things and talking about it, that’s the best you can do.”

What does your dad think about the film and the work that you’re doingMy father is a tough nut, so he saw the teaser and said “wow that’s good, that’s good, let’s see what else you can do.”

Kely talks about her fight for gender equality, the American women’s national team and her father in this interview with the Irish Times during Covid lockdown.

Parts of this interview have been condensed. 

Final thoughts…It’s quite ironic that just the day after my interview Kely Nascimento DeLuca, the US Soccer Federation presented its defense in court in the gender discrimination lawsuit filed in March 2019 by 28 members of the US Women’s Soccer Team. The lawsuit against the US Soccer Federation alleges violations of the Equal Pay Act and Title IX of the Civil Rights Act and seeks equal pay and working conditions to the men’s team. Yet, this March, the day after my interview with Kely, the US Soccer Federation submitted their defense stating that male players have “more responsibility” and the men’s team “requires a higher level of skill.” This really demonstrates the realities of life for a female athlete and what people like Kely are fighting against. Despite Kely’s quite positive outlooks on the future, the reality is that inequality is embedded very deep in our society, to the point that major organizations can release a statement such as above and not fear damage to their reputation. 

Further thoughts…A judge in May 2020 dismissed the team’s claim of getting paid less than the men. He based his decision on the different contracts of the mens and womens teams. Everyone was extremely disappointed, although the team will file an appeal. The team’s spokesperson summed it up perfectly. “We have learned that there are tremendous obstacles to change. We know that it takes bravery and courage and perseverance to stand up to them.

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