ESPN’s Born to Play a groundbreaking documentary on women’s football

For a world desperate for something besides game reruns and alarming speculation about the future, ESPN came through on 1 July with Born to Play, a documentary from director Viridiana Lieberman, which depicted the Boston Renegade’s 2018 championship season. The documentary followed the Renegades through their 6-2 regular season, and their subsequent championship run. For those ready for some football, the film had it all – hard hitting, inspirational pregame and halftime speeches, incredible passes and catches, and an inside look at the hard work the athletes put in to become champions.

The thing that made Born to Play unusual for the sports network was that all of the athletes playing high level football were women.

Women playing tackle football in the New England have nearly as an impressive record as their male counterparts on the Patriots. Women’s teams in the Boston area have won five league championships, while the NFL team has won six for the men.

The first women’s team to play out of Boston was the New England Storm that existed from 2000 to 2003. That team was one of the few women’s teams that have ever reportedly had a “working relationship” with an NFL team, the Patriots in that case. After the Women’s Professional Football League forced the Storm out of the league, it took two years before a new team began play. The Massachusetts Mutiny lasted three seasons before ownership changed and many of the core players formed the Boston Militia. It took a while, and they spotted the Patriots three championships, but the Militia began earning their rings in 2010, when they defeated the Sacramento Sirens to win the Independent Women’s Football League title. They switched to the Women’s Football Alliance in 2011, and won their second championship by defeating the San Diego Surge. In 2014, they became the first team to win two WFA championships when they once again defeated the Surge for the title.

According to Neal Rozendaal’s Women’s Football Encyclopedia (2016), they also earned a less-positive first in 2014 when they became the first championship team to fold before the start of the next season. When Ernie Boch Jr., the Militia’s owner, decided to end his relationship with women’s football on a high note, a group of former players that included Molly Goodwin, Erin Baumgartner, and Mia Brickhouse stepped in, and named their team the Renegades.

Born to Play tells the story of their first championship as the Renegades in the WFA’s Division 1. According to Lieberman, in an interview with Oscar Lopez on his Gridiron Beauties podcast, she had the idea of doing a documentary on women’s sport when she was in graduate school researching how women were depicted in film. She learned about women’s football from a conversation, and was from the Boston area, so she approached the Renegades, who agreed to give her access. She spent the 2018 season following their progress, and leveraged her connections with the production company Park Pictures to pitch the film to ESPN, who decided to feature the documentary in primetime.

Lieberman adroitly weaved together action shots from practices and games, with personal profiles of players such as QB Allison Cahill and DB/RB/WR Chanté Bonds, two of the key offensive players that led the team to the championship.

Cahill began playing with the Storm in 2003, and had played for the Mutiny and Militia. She kept going with the Renegades, and according to the Renegade’s site, Cahill has passed for over 20,000 yards, and almost 300 touchdowns. Her QB rating stands at 115.96, and her completion percentage was 60.7%.

Bonds began playing with the New York Sharks in 2009, then joined the Militia, and stayed through the change with the Renegades. She played both sides of the ball at such a high level that the WFA named her the Defensive Player of the Year in 2017, and gave her the Most Valuable Player award in 2018. Her play in the championship game featured on Born to Play (5 catches for 162 yards and 2 TDs, plus another TD on a punt return) also earned her the game MVP award.

Whitney Zelee, whose career hand ended due to injuries by 2018, was also featured, particularly for her 2013 season, when she rushed for 2,326 (or 2,832 – accounts vary) yards and scored 37 touchdowns on the ground. She added three more scores on receptions to give her 40 for the season. Despite recurrent injuries, Zelee was named the MVP in the championship games in 2011 and 2014. Unable to contribute any longer on the field, Zelee helped coach the team during the 2018 season.

One of the more effective transitions that Lieberman used in her documentary was showing the Renegades practicing on a rented field. They had two hours, and no more. So viewers watched as players went through their drills and scrimmages, when suddenly the lights would go out on them. This nicely demonstrated the wide gap that exists between high school/college/professional teams for males and those for women’s football. It would be inconceivable to imagine the lights suddenly going dark in the midst of a Patriot’s practice.

What the impact of Born to Play airing on ESPN’s major platform remains to be seen. As noted before on this site, girls and women playing football have begun to be more visible in recent years. There have been various documentaries on women’s football before, but they have never had the potential reach that comes with being shown on ESPN.

In some ways, this came at an unfortunate time. Had the documentary appeared during a normal season, this might have driven fans out to women’s games, but with the WFA and other major women’s football leagues sidelined because of the current crisis, that will not be possible. That said, Born to Play definitely demonstrated to a potentially larger audience than ever before that women play football at a high level, and that cannot help but be good for the women’s game.

Photos: Boston Renegades

Russ Crawford is an Associate Professor of History at Ohio Northern University in Ada, OH. He has published three books: Women’s American Football: Breaking Barriers On and Off the Field (2022), Le Football: The History of American Football in