'Fate of a Sport' Hits Hard with Raw, Honest Portrayal of PLL Origins

Like most of the lacrosse community, I watched “Fate of a Sport” in its entirety for the first time last night.

After getting three children fed, bathed and in bed and prepping this morning’s edition of “Dialed In,” I figured I might doze off shortly after launching ESPN+ on the 75-inch smart TV in my living room. It’s a common snooze spot and, well, 11 p.m. just hits harder after the kids’ first day back to school.

At 12:40 a.m., however, my eyes still were wide open — pried open, as they were, by the sheer honesty of the film. It’s raw. It’s real. It’s downright riveting.

It’s not always flattering. The film lays bare for all to see the growing pains the Premier Lacrosse League has experienced in revolutionizing professional lacrosse and repairing the sport’s battered reputation.

How convincing venture capitalists to invest in a new outdoor league when one already existed required a locked-and-loaded proof of concept that would undergo “Shark Tank”-level scrutiny and doubt.

How Major League Lacrosse fought tooth and nail to keep the 140 players PLL co-founder and former two-time MLL MVP Paul Rabil plucked from the league one by one after the 2018 season.

How NBC Sports was the PLL’s last shot at a media rights agreement that would satisfy its linear TV distribution goals — and how Major League Lacrosse attempted to poison the deal with misinformation about the nascent league’s funding.

How Rabil’s lucrative endorsement deal with New Balance ended abruptly, the equipment and apparel company declaring a breach of contract due to the PLL’s alignment with Adidas.

How wearing Black Lives Matter patches during the 2020 PLL Championship Series became divisive and pitted Rabil against some of the same players he so relentlessly courted to help establish the league just a year earlier.

How Rabil’s duality as a league executive and aging athlete wore heavily on him and his family. How his poor performance during the bubbled two-week campaign in Salt Lake City nearly broke him, the disharmonious Atlas locker room serving as the setting for some of the documentary’s most compelling and uncomfortable scenes.

“I have a hard time watching this,” Rabil said in an interview with ESPN’s Chantel McCabe during a recent PLL broadcast. “It didn’t go the way we thought it did and some of the hard stuff is the best stuff.”

Directed by former Johns Hopkins men’s lacrosse player Michael Doneger, “Fate of a Sport” shows Rabil, his college roommate and teammate, at his most vulnerable.

There’s the particularly tender moment when Rabil digs out his wedding portrait and speaks wistfully of his marriage to former James Madison and U.S. national team star Kelly Berger that ended in divorce.

Footage of Rabil on the training table wincing in pain as he receives cortisone injections to fight back against his body’s betrayal.

A sense of paranoia as Rabil attempts the high-wire act of playing in a league where he’s the boss.

Rabil’s pining for Lyle Thompson and the friendship they forge as teammates during Rabil’s last season with the Cannons in 2021, Thompson’s calming influence helping to unlock vintage Rabil amid the dramatic irony of an impending retirement only those closest to Rabil (and the film crew) knew about.

Ultimately, the film’s most moving material centers on the relationship between Rabil and his brother, PLL co-founder and CEO Mike Rabil. They’re so alike, serial entrepreneurs prepared to f-bomb anyone who stands in their way and fueled by those who doubt them or their intentions.

In contrast to a former MLL owner who memorably says neither the PLL nor MLL will succeed because “our sport’s irrelevant,” the Rabils refuse to allow pessimism to prevail. They say they’re not competing with MLL, but rather the NBA and NHL. They speak of building a billion-dollar business and even laugh at MLL’s $35 million bid to buy the PLL and reacquire its talent.

“We’re trying to build a sport for generations,” Mike Rabil says in the film. “And to just sort of throw the keys back to the original operator that wasn’t doing a good job would have been disingenuous and lacking integrity.”

Even if it meant a $6 million payout for each of them. The PLL eventually paid $1 million in the December 2020 merger, the anxious moments of which “Fate of a Sport” also chronicles.

“One of the elements that attracted me to this story was the fact that this is very much a story about two brothers working together to go chase a dream,” Doneger says in the film’s foreword. “When you’re doing it with your brother, that adds all sorts of dynamics to it. They actually complement each other very well, but everything is a discussion.”

For all the machismo the Rabils exude throughout “Fate of a Sport,” it’s seeing Paul Rabil sob into his burly older brother’s reassuring shoulder following his final game that still resonated with me when I woke up this morning. As did the artful cinematography that captures them embracing upon striking a major media rights deal with ESPN. The scene unfolds in front of a canvas painting of the Rabils wrapping their arms around each other after the PLL’s inaugural game in 2019. 

Brothers gotta hug.

“After watching ‘Fate of a Sport,’ I hope people are inspired. And I hope that they go chase the dream that they have set for themselves, which is what Paul and Mike have done,” Doneger says. “Ultimately, they gave a lot of themselves to do it and they’ve sacrificed a lot. But they’ve also inspired a lacrosse community.”

Watch “Fate of a Sport” on ESPN+.

Matt DaSilva is the editor in chief of USA Lacrosse Magazine.


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