As sports fans wait for the return of NFL football, now is the perfect time to screen Born to Play, which provides an eye-opening and inspiring look into women’s football. The film follows the Boston Renegades, an all-female tackle football squad, through one exciting and challenging season as they fight for the Women’s Football Alliance championship they narrowly missed out on the year before.
Viridiana Lieberman directed and produced the film, and stopped by to have a chat with me about creating a sports documentary that connects with all audiences, how her past work as a film editor assisted her with assembling Born to Play, and what she hopes that audiences take away from the finished product. If you missed the film when it aired on ESPN and ABC recently, you can stream it on ESPN+ now or it will be re-airing on TV over the summer.
Brittany Frederick: How did you decide on telling this particular story – and not only that, but this particular football team?
Viridiana Lieberman: I’ve been a women’s sports fan my entire life, so the desire to follow a women’s team in sports was certainly a dream for a very long time. About a decade ago, I was in grad school and I focused all of my thesis work on representations of female athletes in cinema. I was looking at fictional films from the forties to today, looking at the women in those stories to see if they were empowered or not and, if so, how? What were the patterns that Hollywood was engaging in all the time? I was studying them and started to dream about if I were to tell a story, how would I do it? That was definitely a goal that I had for myself coming out of grad school.
At that time I thought I’m going to write my own film, like A League of Their Own, but then I got into documentary [filmmaking] as an editor and had a wonderful moment of revelation where it hit me: I don’t have to imagine it. It exists. It’s even more powerful to see that it’s out there and it’s happening, and it’s been happening for a long time. I was at a conference presenting some of my thesis work and there was a woman who came up to me; she asked, “Do you know that women play football?” I knew women played football but I had no idea that there was an established league, and that it had been around for so long. And I was like, “That’s it.”
When you think about the major sports institutions in this country – football, baseball, hockey, and basketball – there’s a history of women playing those sports in varying ways. But football feels like the last untouched landscape for women’s participation. The option hasn’t been there, which of course goes into deeply rooted conversations of women’s sports. So I thought to myself, that would be a pretty vital place to broadcast representation and visibility of what these women are doing.
I’m from Boston and I am a diehard everything Boston fan, so of course the fantasy was to follow a Boston team, and lucky for me the Boston Renegades were not only an incredibly talented team, but willing to hear my pitch. It was the culmination of my studies, my love for women’s sports, and many years in documentary that lead me to this story. Right when I was ready to hit the launch button on making my own film, the Boston Renegades were willing to take my call and that really started it all.
BF: Every sports film, scripted or not, has to balance telling a team story with showing enough of the individual players that we care about them and they don’t feel like caricatures to us. How did you manage that with Born to Play?
VL: I followed many players throughout the filming of this. Some players, they were so generous with their time and inviting me in, and it was heartbreaking to not be able to show all of them. But as an editor for many years, I knew that those choices are vital to garner emotion in the film, and to not make it feel just jam-packed with information. You have to take a journey, and with that, you have to attach and align with certain individuals but they always represent more than just themselves.
It was a balancing act and it was hard. Every time I had to make an edit to keep the film at a manageable runtime, it required removing an entire arc of a player, which was tough. There’s so many stories that happen every season. There are so many inner workings of the operation that I didn’t have time to show. But I imagine this film as a first step and hope that it will open the door for a lot more storytelling and coverage of the sport.
Allison Cahill was already a legendary player. Even the owner [Molly Goodwin] was like, you’re never going to get Al. It’s not that she’s so elusive, but she’s so focused on the game and she didn’t want distractions…Whether it’s training, studying film, or even at her job, everything that she does in life is for football. And I think that halfway through the season she realized why I was there and felt this could also be a worthy cause for her time. But it was very funny because for a long time the team was like, “No way.” And I’m grateful she let me in.
Molly told me, you can’t tell the story of the 2018 Renegades without Allison Cahill and Chante Bonds. They were just all-star MVPs that whole season, incredible leaders and they deserved it. So it was a balancing act to figure out how to pull it all off, but it seems to be resonating and doing the work I wanted it to. I’m proud of that.
BF: Now that Born to Play has aired not only on ESPN, but on ABC as well, what has that reception been like? What does it mean to you personally just to have the film out on possibly the most prominent sports platform in America?
VL: It’s been phenomenal. I couldn’t have dreamed of a better response. The optics of being on ESPN feel incredibly powerful. These women have grown up watching sports their entire life on ESPN and not seeing themselves there, and all of a sudden they are tuned in to this channel, their central primary source of sport, and seeing themselves. That was incredible.
It’s not really validation because they never needed that. That’s something I love about this whole world they’ve built where they’re playing professional football. They never needed anybody to officially sponsor or give them permission to play. They just made it happen.
I think the ESPN moment was very powerful for them. Some players have told me it’s the most significant moment in their career, which is shocking because you’re like well, that’d be winning a championship, wouldn’t it? But the recognition, and acknowledgement, and the visibility is also a part of the importance of keeping the sport going. I’ve gotten emails from players, and broadcasters, and coaches, and wonderful people who told me that they were so emotional seeing it on ESPN, because they just never imagined it happening in their lifetime.
And also that the film itself felt so cinematic, and epic, and the glory of being able to see players feel that big – that was a huge goal for me. I thought, bare minimum, I wanted the players to see themselves in the epic, legendary fashion that their male counterparts have gotten for so many decades. I wanted to make a classic sports movie. And I do think that the response has confirmed to me that I struck somewhere close to that, and that feels pretty marvelous.
BF: Looking back on the film now, are there moments that still resonate with you, or that you want viewers to look out for specifically? What are you hoping that the final takeaways are?
VL: There are some sports archetypes in this film where I’m paying homage, or tapping into very on purpose. I’m doing it very consciously. I’m trying to elicit that type of sports language for them, which I think they deserve. So a sequence I love is where Chante Bonds recounts an epic play that happened against the Chicago Force, which was a rival that they played really tough games against. I grew up watching NFL Films, and those guys would be telling stories – “Oh, this was an amazing day, and it was the fourth quarter.” And she was doing that.
All the players told me this story. They were like oh my God, the Chicago Force game, it was raining. And then the minute she threw the ball it was like the rain stopped. I thought there was a real fantasy moment – for me to bring it to life in that same capacity, to have her rehash this story as we see it, and have this glorious music underneath, and then she catches [the ball], and the crowd goes wild. To make it legendary, which it already had been via oral storytelling. But it hadn’t been cast in a time capsule like that.
It was a hard section to cut, even though it’s just her talking and the archived broadcast. Women’s football hasn’t had the strongest broadcast quality. They’ve done the best they can. They usually have the cameras up in the top decks but some teams have really pulled together amazing commentators. So to be able to go through and find the moments that could best show that, and encapsulate it, was cool. And obviously having the archival [footage] to show the history of the game.
That section in particular always warms my heart. When I was watching the premiere on ESPN, my eyes were wide and I felt like a little kid watching it…So that was a big moment.
Cutting the games was very hard as an editor. We had entire games, two cameras, and all this footage, and we mic’d coaches. There was so much, and how do you tell the story of the game? It was an eight-game season, and then extended past that when they went into the playoffs. The ability to figure out what each game served in the story was quite a challenge. When I was at the semifinal that’s in the film with DC, that was one of the most spectacular games of sports I’ve ever seen in my life. And that happens a lot with DC and Boston. They have a huge historical rivalry in the sport; it’s been going on for a long time and tends to decide who’s going to be victorious in the whole season, which is wild. And that was so storied there, back and forth.
So to have such a competitive season and then have this set piece of sorts for that game, I think when people want to see the best women’s football, it’s there. I’m very proud that the film captured a season that was so competitive with some of the greatest teams. It’s really about representation and visibility, ultimately. But the thing I’m most proud of in the film is that it does treat them as athletes. It is not an asterisk, it is not a film that’s going, “Wow, women can play football.” Of course women can play football. People just didn’t know that it was happening at such an organized level and at such a high elite status. And so I was going to die on that hill that this film would treat them as pure athletes.
The conversation of what their resources are, and how they run the team, and the challenges of not having a continuous path to play football throughout their lifetime, and what that means for how they entered the sport, or how long they’ve been playing it, or how much they build their skill level – all of that would naturally emerge as they share their story, of course, which would then be centered, sure, on their gender. But by no means was the story about that.
That was something I had to fight for a lot, because people definitely want a hook. And the hook here was the concept of just being an incredible group of athletes trying to win the championship, [who] you’ve just never met before, that are exciting and that are dedicated to their sport. And then they happened to be women, and they happen to be in Boston, in the city of champions.
There’s a lot of detail in there that makes it very, very special. But what they do is relatable to all of the other athletes in the country who are playing it: they’re football players. That’s something I definitely hope people take away when they watch the film. I wanted people to get whipped into a frenzy and almost forget that they didn’t know that women didn’t play football, because they do.
It’s that old chicken and egg. I think if women knew it was an option to play they would be playing, because they want to. There are plenty of women who do.
Born to Play is now streaming on ESPN+ and will be airing again on the ESPN family of networks throughout the summer; check your local listings for TV showtimes.