Documentary Releases: Born to Play (2020) - Reviewed

photo courtesy ESPN

In February 2020, the San Francisco 49ers’ Katie Sowers made headlines for becoming the first female and first openly gay coach in Super Bowl history.  Some football fans were surprised to see a female in such a male-dominated sport, but the fact of the matter is they’ve been around for a long time, and they’re not going anywhere.

Born to Play is a documentary airing on ESPN that follows the Boston Renegades:  a women’s tackle football team hungry for redemption after losing the previous year’s championship.  With team members’ ages ranging from 19-49, the film depicts the dedication and sacrifice that goes into their sport.  Reliant on day jobs with limited hours to practice, they don’t have the same luxuries as their professional male counterparts who are able to devote 100% of their time into training and get paid for it, but these fierce women love every minute of what they do, and are damn good at it.  

Filmmaker Viridiana Lieberman’s passion for the subject matter is clear from the opening shot and maintains momentum the entire running time. A life-long women’s sports fan with a graduate degree in women’s studies, Lieberman is able to tackle (no pun intended) the subject matter of this documentary with aplomb.  

One of the greatest aspects of this film is that queerness and the players’ gender isn’t portrayed with a sense of “otherness.”  They are simply shown as people with a love for their sport, and the film is never heavy-handed about what sets them apart in the world of football.  Several of the women are shown in gay relationships, and it feels refreshingly normalized.  Lieberman, who identifies as queer herself, said to Variety, “I’m just showing the world for what it is with these women, and they have created a community and a society amongst the team where those things just don’t play a factor.”

As is the case with many sports documentaries, the most memorable moments of the film take place off the field, following the everyday lives of these women.  Team member Allison “Al” Cahill’s mother reminisces how her daughter already knew at 4 years old that she wanted to be a football player.  A personal trainer by day, Allison has followed her childhood dreams by joining the Renegades.  Whitney Zelee, who in 2013 became the first woman to rush for 2000 yards in a season, candidly discusses how her torn ACL has affected her ability to play, worried she may never be able to play again.  Her heartbreak over this is poignant and palpable.

Born to Play is primarily a football documentary, but there is plenty to enjoy here for non-sports fans.  The filmmaker describes it as “a love letter to the sport and the badass women who play it,” and it is exactly that.  It was invigorating to watch the spirit and resilience of the Boston Renegades both on field and off, and “love letter” documentaries like this have the power to resonate with any audience.  Football fan or not, give it a watch.

-Andrea Riley