To be a true great athlete is to be more than a consistent winner. It requires a legacy built upon trailblazing moves that betters the industry for you, your team and other athletes. Take Paul Rabil, widely considered as one of lacrosse’s best players. He retired in 2021 after more than a decade as a professional lacrosse player, which included launching his own professional league— the Premier Lacrosse League— in 2019 with brother Mike Rabil.
Fate of a Sport, which premiered at Tribeca Film Festival, traces Rabil’s journey (and his key team players in life and on the field) from collegiate star to professional player to league founder. As he prepares for the documentary’s release by ESPN films in late August or early September, Rabil spoke to LA Confidential about capturing his final season on camera, the importance of highlighting lacrosse’s Native American roots and his love for the sport.
Tell us about your early conversations about filming— Did you want to capture the inaugural season as a way to bolster buzz around professional lacrosse or was it about wanting to tell a story?
We just started recording because we felt like it was our mission to try to rebuild professional lacrosse. I was playing in it and felt like professional lacrosse had a really bad brand image. And we also knew it was going to be a really, really steep climb, but if we documented it, whether we were successful or not, it would still be something worth documenting.
We started recording when we were fundraising for Premier Lacrosse League. If you look at the odds of starting a company, there were far greater odds than not that we would be unsuccessful. But we were incredibly focused and resilient around what we believe the future of professional lacrosse could be versus what it was and documenting that, especially if you look at Act One of the film where you got to meet previous owners and commissioners of Major League Lacrosse, you could see the distinct differences between the way they viewed professional lacrosse and the way the way we did. At one point, one of their owners said professional lacrosse is irrelevant. My view was that it absolutely shouldn't be and here are reasons why we think that it could be huge.
You’re an executive producer. How involved were you with the final story that is presented in Fate of a Sport?
I was in the unique position of being able to clear access rights to as much behind the scenes content captured as our director and our production team wanted to do. So that was my early involvement, which was say, “Yes” and have cameras in just about every room.
When they proposed continuing to shoot in 2020 and then again in 2021, it was two more yeses. And then when we applied to get into the Tribeca Film Festival, it was another yes. Beyond that, I tried to stay out of the cutting room and trust those who were putting the story together that whatever happened would be as authentic to the path that we took as possible.
Fate of a Sport highlights that lacrosse is a Native American game. Did you know that this would be imperative to focus on early on or did it happen during filming?
We all had agreed that that was an important part of the story. It's something that I do regularly through my media integration. It's something the PLL does.
We began to search for the most authentic through line for the film to tell the historical story of lacrosse, which is a really powerful one. And that through line we found out in season three with my relationship and new teammate Lyle Thompson.
There was a lot of fate happening as we were shooting and ultimately producing the film. And that being one of them is how do you integrate the native roots into a story about the modern game? And no one would have seen the challenges coming of getting Lyle into the PLL and then certainly being traded to a team that then drafted him and our previous relationship and leading into my final season together. I'm not sure how we would have done that without that organic throughline.
You’re approaching one year of retirement. In hindsight, are you happy to have that moment in your life captured on film?
There are moments in the film that were captured that I'm not proud of and then moments that I am proud of and I think every athlete at some point has a vision for going out on top. It just doesn't often happen that way. And it didn't happen that way for me, but being able to play my final game in a league that I helped build and walk off the field into the arms of my brother who co-founded that league is, I think, the most unique experience that no other athlete, in sports has ever had and I’ll always cherish that.
I think the film does a good job of describing those mixed emotions that I would constantly try to process on a day to day of being a player and a founder and those points of conflict of interest. In this case, I knew heading into the season that it was more than likely that I would retire. But given that I run the league and the promotion that's tied to the league itself, had I gone the route of doing a retirement season, I felt uncomfortable around it. It would feel contrived, so part of what was unique about the experience was that it was basically the filmmaking team’s little secret throughout the season. We knew it was likely that I would retire and I made it public after my final game.
As we see in the documentary (and as with most professional athletes), you’re a competitive person. Has that always been an innate part of yourself or is it something that developed the more serious you got with sports?
I've always been highly competitive. I was known in the neighborhood— my family reminds me of this— whenever I would lose, I would cry or throw a temper tantrum from musical chairs to touch football. And then as I grew as an athlete and honed my physical abilities and my technical capabilities and then learned more about sports psychology, I think I became an even more fierce competitor and that's made its way into business and in other areas of my life.
Is competitiveness key to having drive and ambition?
No question. And I think the greater your compete level, the more persistent you are, the more resilient you are. I think those who are ultra competitive— contrary to maybe what most people think— they've actually put themselves in the way of losing and loss more than most. And that risk aggression and that appetite to take on losing and keep fighting is what builds that resilience muscle. Yet I think few people in the world carry that competitive ferocity at that level. And you have to have it, no question, to be able to take on a business opportunity the size that Mike and I did. And Mike matches my competitive intensity as well. On the other side of it too is a real mental health risk. When you are so competitive, that means when you do lose— and we all lose— that you experience pretty pretty low moments and reactions to that, so you've got to find balance between competition as an edge and competitiveness that can be self harm.
In 2014, when I lost a world championship game when I was playing for Team USA against Canada, I went to a really deep and dark place and had a hard time getting out. And so I saw sports psychology and therapy as a means to try to recover and that became a big part of my life and the integration into my life and my life in sports was making sure that I was getting good counsel, especially with the appetite that I had to win and to try new things and to build things.
What do you hope people take away from watching Fate of a Sport, whether they are big lacrosse fans or know next to nothing about the sport?
I hope that people gain a new level of respect and appreciation for the athletes that compete in lacrosse. I hope that they can relate to the struggle and to the ambition that Mike and I have as entrepreneurs for wanting to create something that betters an industry. And I hope that as a result, they'll want to watch lacrosse and take on interest in the avenue of being a fan. And in that order.
If we leave out one hope, it would be the last. I think in the former, we all experience it in different ways of our life, whether it's wanting to be recognized for the effort and the work that we put into whatever it is we do to just the challenges and the emotional roller coasters we all go through. No matter how successful or popular or unsuccessful or unpopular you are, a lot of the emotions that we share are human.
It's interesting and powerful to commit your life to one thing, especially something you’ve been doing since you were a kid. Why do you love lacrosse?
It's changed for me over time. This might be a long answer, but given that I've played the game for 24 years, it's been a part of my life now for 25. I loved it at first because it shared the discipline of so many of my favorite sports: the physicality of football, the endurance of soccer, the hand-eye-coordination of hockey and the agility of basketball. That's what got me into it. And then as I played it longer, I appreciated the skill and the precision and the athleticism, the competitiveness. And the third phase of my career is the history. Lacrosse is probably the sport that bears the closest representation of the history of America and that it’s a Native game and it can be played by anyone and shared by anyone and used as a means to determine a winner or loser or solve conflict or, in its original state, celebrate the Creator. And I don't think there's any other sport or any other game in the world that’s like it, so I tend to appreciate this third phase more than the first two, which were representative of most of my time playing
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Photography by: Theo Wargo/Getty Images