When Viridiana Lieberman was in graduate school at Florida Atlantic, the Cambridge native noticed a problematic trend in how female athletes had been portrayed in sports films.
So she wrote her thesis on the subject — it’s now a book, “Sports Heroines in Film” — and after breaking through in the documentary film world as the editor of the 2018 Emmy-winning “The Sentence,” she embarked on a passion project to tell the story of female athletes without caveats.
On Wednesday at 9 p.m., her debut project as a feature-length documentary director, “Born to Play,” premieres on ESPN, chronicling the first of consecutive Women’s Football Alliance Super Bowl runs by the Boston Renegades in 2018.
Lieberman’s film takes a detailed look at the semi-professional players who pay $500 annually to play, take budget bus rides of up to 20 hours, and practice late at night while juggling full-time jobs.
“The thing that was so inspiring to me is [the players] didn’t ask for permission, they were unapologetically creating their own destiny,” said Lieberman.
“For me the film is about the question, ‘What if what you were born to do didn’t exist?’ What would you do? You make it happen.”
Previously known as the Boston Militia, the Renegades have earned five championships since 2010, including an undefeated season in 2019. In 2015, players Molly Goodwin, Erin Baumgartner, and Mia Brickhouse became joint owners of the franchise, which is supported by a volunteer coaching staff and a volunteer event staff at Revere's Harry Della Russo Stadium.
The film centers on quarterback Allison Cahill of Uxbridge and Brockton’s Chante Bonds, a standout defensive back and halfback. Both veterans said they grew up competing in neighborhood football games and fell in love with the sport, but both played basketball through high school and college, putting their football dreams on hold.
Cahill, who was preparing for her 17th season under center when the 2020 season was called off because of the coronavirus pandemic, is now the only quarterback in women’s tackle football leagues with 100 career victories. Bonds was named regular-season and Super Bowl MVP during the 2018 championship run.
“It’s so exciting to get this type of exposure for women’s football,” Bonds said. “I’m very proud of our team and what we’ve been able to accomplish, to become part of the winning tradition as another championship team in Boston.”
With men's professional sports leagues likely to resume play without any fans in attendance this summer, the experience of playing simply for the love of the game is becoming more and more essential.
For Cahill, that's what her team has been doing for decades, and it's encouraging to see a documentary portray that passion without any gender qualifications.
“Viri was just the perfect person to tell our story,” Cahill said. “From the start she came to it with the view of simply trying to make it a sports documentary. A lot of times in our coverage we’re put in the lifestyle section, or written as a human interest story, but at the end of the day, we’re just athletes.”