Many Americans think of religion and sports as polar opposites: one as a trivial waste of time, the other as a matter of life and death (though some would disagree on which describes which). Accomplished sports documentarian Gotham Chopra, however, is convinced that sports is, itself, a religion, and has created a six-part docu-series, Religion of Sports, to test his theory. Each episode takes a look at the culture surrounding everything from NASCAR races to UFC matches to e-sports competitions. The morning after the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in thrilling fashion, we caught up with Mr. Chopra to discuss everything from his passion for sports, his relationship with his famous father, and his predictions for the future of athletic competition.
Observer: Coincidentally enough, we’re talking about the interconnection of sports and religion the morning after a curse-breaking World Series Game 7 and, having just watched your show, I was even more attuned to the ways sports appropriates religious terminology.
Gotham Chopra: I’ve been noticing that for years and years. The Cubs/Indians World Series is the most extreme, in-your-face version of it, but in college football every weekend, there will be rivalries and holy wars and miracles and stories of redemption. You can find it in every sort of sporting event. Trust me, it’s an obsession. Last night, I thought I was watching the most exaggerated version of it. But TV, for years, has done such a great job of finding those people in the crowd who you could tell are praying and making deals with the devil.
Looking at your resume the last couple of years, you’ve set up a bit of a niche in sports documentary. What about that genre connects with you so much?
One, I’ve grown up in a family where there’s this spiritual emphasis. I’ve been around it. I’ve been around the world of religion, spirituality, great teachers, wisdom, traditions, all of that, but I think, probably when I was a teenager, especially growing up in Boston, a real mecca for the religion of sports, I started to observe that everything that my father [New Age guru Deepak Chopra] and some of the people in his world talk about and associate with spiritual traditions exists in sports. And not just in metaphors and allegories. Like we just talked about with the Cubs, when I was growing up, the Red Sox kind of were the Cubs ten years ago, in terms of busting a curse. So I lived through that and I was sort of like, “Yeah, it’s real,” and whereas religion requires faith and dogma and rules, sports requires participation. That’s kind of what drew me to this. One of the seminal projects for me the last few years was working with Kobe Bryant. There isn’t just a religion of Lakers in Los Angeles; there’s a religion of Kobe. I’ve always observed this from the fan’s perspective, but to work with him, get to know him, to see how he exists on the other side of that religion was fascinating and probably helped nurture this idea even further.
And yet, for much of the country, people tend to focus on the more negative aspects of Kobe.
Athletes are mythical. Just in terms of their physical gifts and size, they mimic Greek gods or superheroes. But of course, the things they’re able to do on the field are human potential at its apex. That’s on the court. You have to be very careful off the court and I find myself saying, “Yes, admire this one thing over here and the commitment to do that and be that, but you don’t know these people off the field.” When you do, many of them are struggling with the same things we do, facing the same difficulties. But the other thing about great athletes, especially elite athletes, they’re the true believers. You watch Kobe Bryant or Tom Brady or LeBron James or any of these incredible athletes and the devotion they bring to their craft. It’s not just the genetic gifts that they have; it is a discipline that is the same as a martial artist or true believer who is showing up every single day to pay homage to this thing that they do. Because there are guys who are bigger, faster, and stronger than Tom Brady or Kobe Bryant, but I think because of their commitment to their craft, Tom and Kobe have risen to the level that they have.
Speaking of Tom Brady, I see that he and Michael Strahan are Executive Producers on the project. How did they get involved and what exactly was their role on the series?
Tom and Michael are two guys I’ve gotten to know over the years who I shared this concept with as it was evolving. Michael, obviously, this is the world he frequents now. He is a big media personality and mogul and has produced shows both scripted and non-scripted. He’s in some of them; he’s just the producer on other ones. So he’s very active on that level of helping me navigate networks and leagues. His Rolodex is so vast, and he’s got an amazing team around him, so he can definitely, not that he’s not creatively involved, but I, for one, can really utilize that Rolodex and that network. Tom’s very different because Tom’s obviously still playing, still performing at such an elite level. The more I got to know him and the more I got to share my idea with him, he was like, “I get it. I know, for me, that Sunday, being on that field when I hear and feel the fans around me, that is a spiritual experience.” So he connected and then he said, “I want to be part of it. I want to be involved.” He doesn’t come with hours upon hours of television shows he’s produced, but because he’s so close, like I said, to the religion of sports, he’ll say, “I think when you talk to Dale Earnhardt Jr., you should ask this.” So he’s been creatively engaged, and it’s been fun for me to have access to that because, while I definitely have experience working with athletes, my athletic career ended probably Junior year of high school. (laughs) I come from a very different perspective. It’s really helpful to talk to a guy who can say, “When there’s two minutes left in the Super Bowl and we’re down, this is what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling, what I’m experiencing. Let’s try to find a way to capture that.”
Has there been anything that’s surprised you as you were putting the series together?
Yeah. That’s the nature of unscripted television or documentaries. You know, you have a rough idea, but when you start really plunging in deep, you have to go where the story takes you. I think one of the nice, refreshing things about this series for me, as a filmmaker, despite having done some successful projects with guys like Kobe Bryant, this one really isn’t dependent on the athlete. If you watch the NASCAR one, sure, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is in it, Kurt Busch is in it, but it wasn’t like days and days of following those guys and trying to pry information, getting through their entourages and stuff like that. It’s actually about the culture.
It’s more about the people involved in the sport that you don’t normally hear about.
And I think you go where the story is. So when you find a guy like Joey Jones [a double-amputee Marine featured in the first episode] who’s brought such an amazing story, who’s so articulate, who inspires you in a way that you weren’t necessarily prepared for, you go for it.
Speaking of Dale Earnhardt Jr., one of the key moments in the first episode comes when he speaks about his relationship with his famous father, Dale Sr. As someone who grew up in a similar situation, did you specifically go in that direction with the conversation or did it just happen organically?
Even as someone who frankly didn’t know that much, had never been to a NASCAR race. If you know anyone in NASCAR, I knew about Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the circumstances of his death. So yeah, I got to know Dale Jr. a little bit and get some of his story and understand how he got pulled into the sport, not because, as he says himself, because it was something he necessarily naturally or instinctively loved, but he loved his father and that was his father’s thing and it was a way for him to build a relationship. Yes, that I could definitely relate to. (laughs) Because, for me, the world of spirituality, I’ve grown up around it, I’ve been interested in it. But it’s my father’s world, and this show in some ways is my way of saying, “This is my version of it. I own this. I can really express this.” And that’s really been great.
How did you decide on the six sports cultures documented in the series? Was there a conscious decision to steer clear of more popular sports like football?
For me, there was a natural curiosity about these sports because I’ve been to so many football and baseball and basketball games in my life, but I’ve never been to a NASCAR race. I’ve never been to a rodeo. I’ve never been to an MMA fight. So I was able to go to those and really bring a natural desire to learn more about them. I will also say that, despite the fact that my wife is from Atlanta, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Atlanta, I’d never been to rural Georgia and South Carolina and outside of Charlotte and those places. I joke about it with Joey all the time because he’s a Republican, Southern white boy and I’m a Yankee minority, intellectual, Ivy League whatever, and we do have very different views on a lot of different things, but boy, I’ve never met anyone more inspiring to me, frankly, than he is, and that’s one of the beauties of sports. It’s sort of transcendent in that way.
Do you expect that the audience for this show will mostly be made up of people who aren’t that familiar with these sports?
For sure. First of all, when you’re not someone who’s an expert on the sport, you’re not going to become an expert by reading a month’s worth of research, so I wasn’t going to, after two weeks of learning about NASCAR, tell all the diehard NASCAR fans what’s so great about their sport. Two, it’s a niche audience, even as big as it is. But three, it’s not as interesting. I sort of use my wife as an example. She’s been around me for the last twenty years, and she knows I’m a huge sports fan, but even during the game last night, she was like, “Why do these people care so much about this thing? They’re not part of the team. They don’t have any control.” And I’ve always said, “Sit down. Watch this. This will answer your question about why sports matter.” If we do our jobs right, you don’t need to understand NASCAR to understand Joey Jones. So, sports is the backdrop for sure, but these are human stories and the goal is not only to appeal outside of NASCAR fans, but even outside of sports fans. I just want these to have great storytelling and great characters.
Looking to the future, do you think that the role of sports in our society is only going to grow larger or will it take a step back compared to other concerns?
Well, sports has always been around. If you go back to the earliest stages of human evolution, we were always looking for ways to compete and fight with one another. I think they’ll always be around, but I do think, like in religion, there’s the rise and fall of religions and certain cults start. I mean, 2,000 years ago, Christianity started as a cult. Today, there are 2.2 billion members around the world, and the Church is the most powerful institution on Earth. But there are others that stay on the fringes for a long time. I think we see that in the UFC episode, which essentially started as a cult in the desert and, to some degree, I think its popularity is linked to the fact that it’s two people get in a cage and fight and one gets out. E-sports is definitely in that early stage where many people don’t even think it’s a sport. So sports come and go. I think some of the biggest sports institutions in the world right now are sort of petering. The NFL is dealing with a lot of controversy, and baseball has faded to some degree. But they change, they adapt. Things come and go, but the intrinsic need to compete and, for fans, the chance to be a part of something bigger than themselves, that’ll never really go away. In fact, the data shows that one of the reasons why e-sports is tapping into the millennial generation unlike any other sport is that people are less and less subscribing to traditional religions. The data shows that the number of millennials attending church is getting fewer and fewer, but the growth of these sports is bigger and bigger than ever before and, if you talk to millennials, their idea of spirituality outside of religion is stronger than ever. They want to believe.
There seems to be more of a focus on individuality, as well.
It’s hard to say because in e-sports, for example, single-player games like Street Fighter are a big deal, and then there’s League of Legends and these team-oriented games. One of the groups we follow in e-sports episode is a group of women. Gaming, unfortunately, like a lot of religions, has been a very male-driven and often misogynistic culture. Here, you have a group of women who have come together and formed their own team because they just want to kick ass, and now they can do it together. So, in that case, they want to be part of a team. They want to create a community where they’re safe and respected and admired for their achievements on the virtual field of play. And then, of course, fighting is the ultimate single-player, purpose-driven sport. You better rely on yourself and no one else in order to survive, so I think there’s probably room for all. It probably depends on who you are, what you’re looking for, and what stage of life you’re at.
Do you think there are negative consequences to sports taking on this much value in our society?
Sure. Just to use the analogy of religion, religion is full of scandals and moneymaking schemes and, historically, has often preyed upon the weak and sports, especially in this country, but really around the world, has become…saying it’s a billion-dollar industry makes it sound tiny. Trying to take your kid to an NFL or MLB game these days, you spend so much money. And then it’s like I said before about how worshipping athletes in one way is great but dangerous off the field. So, to answer your question, yes, but it’s not unlike anything else in the world. Take what you can from it. One of the things I love, and I’ll use the NASCAR episode as an analogy. We keep calling it the NASCAR episode, but my favorite part is the dirt track, where that young 14-year old woman, Alexis, raced. It’s Wednesday night. There’s a $2 entrance fee. It’s community church. Sure, it’s great, if you can afford it, to go the Vatican and St. Peter’s Square and walk the red rope and get to see Michelangelo’s paintings and everything, but you don’t really need to do that to believe. You can go to your local church. That’s what the dirt track is. That’s what minor league baseball is. You can touch this thing, feel this thing, participate in this thing. That makes it better than religion. Sports is not only religion, but it’s better because it’s like, participate, show up, something will happen. In total, in sum, sports is more a positive than it is negative.
The Religion of Sports airs Tuesdays at 8/7c on the Audience Network. For more information, including the first full episode, check out http://religion-of-sports.com/.