July 17, 2020
Gerrad Hall | Entertainment Weekly
Representation matters and the power of that visibility is profound — not just for this team and other female athletes, but for young women growing up who want to know what kind of future is possible.
There’s a long tradition of great sports movies, documentaries, and TV shows. And while the spotlight is on the athletes and what’s happening on the field or court, the real story is about what’s happening off of it. But it’s not often that those stories focus on female athletes.
Born to Play, which debuted July 1 on ESPN and will air July 18 on ABC, does just that, documenting a season with the Boston Renegades, a women’s tackle football team. After going undefeated the previous season only to lose the championship game, they’re hoping to change that. In EW’s preview from the film, above, as the players train both off the field an on (where stadium lights seem to frequently turn off during their practices), they admit how the loss left a “bitter taste” in their mouth. “You want to go out and play that game again the next day,” one player says, while another recognizes, “We are not invincible. We are beatable.”
The film, directed and produced by Viridiana Lieberman (who literally wrote the book on women’s sports and movie, Sports Heroines on Film: A Critical Study of Cinematic Women Athletes, Coaches and Owners), hones in on the spirit, tenacity, and dedication of the Renegades, comprised of women ages 19-49 who pay to play, doing so outside of their regular jobs. “The team has certainly gained lots of new fans and they’ve told me that fellow women football players — even their fiercest rivals — have reached out to pay their respects and say that they saw themselves in the work the Renegades do,” Lieberman tells EW. “There’s so much more work to be done to propel women’s football to the next level and so many more audiences we want to reach with the film, but in this moment, the film is bringing long-overdue attention to women in football, and it’s thrilling.”
Thrilling for the Renegades, too, who mention during filming (when ESPN had not yet licensed the doc) that they hoped that decades from now their story would be told on the sports network’s famed 30 for 30 series. Little did they know, it wouldn’t take long.
“When I was watching the broadcast and heard [Defensive Back/Safety Chanté Bonds] say ‘Someday I’ll be on a 30 for 30 at age 65…’ I glanced down at the ESPN logo at the bottom of the screen and the tears were instant,” Lieberman recalls. “Knowing that these women were watching themselves on the channel they’ve spent their lives tuning into for all things sports was profound. Some of the Renegades have told me this was the most significant moment of their football careers, and they have won multiple national championships. The day before the premiere, one of the players texted me, ‘Is this real life?’ That pretty much sums it up. Representation matters and the power of that visibility is profound — not just for this team and other female athletes, but for young women growing up who want to know what kind of future is possible.”
As is the case with many documentaries, especially sports-centered ones, the story often changes throughout filming. Focus can shift after a player suffers injuries, or when the team’s win/loss takes a dramatic turn, or unforeseen circumstances require a certain amount of attention. Born to Play was no different.
“In any sports story, you can never know if the team will win or lose. The Renegades had lost in the championship game the year before and there were definitely more than a few moments during this season where I thought, Is this it? Will this loss be the end of the film?” Lieberman explains. “But the games were never the whole story for them because they had to go back to their day jobs. These are not professional athletes, they pay to play. When you set out to make a football movie, you don’t expect to be shooting in elementary school classrooms, cafés, police stations, and science labs. That said, this is as professional as a women’s football player can get in the United States. For most players on the team, their day jobs support their football careers. However, they are still elite athletes and I set out to portray them as such. I knew that I could convey the detail of their skill and the landscape of their dedication, no matter the outcome of their season. My goal from the beginning was to give these women the same visual cinematic treatment that their male counterparts have gotten on the gridiron for decades and I think the film succeeds in that.”
(Field) goal achieved.