“Religion of Sports” With Tom Brady, Gotham Chopra, and Michael Strahan Is a Look at Sociology

(USA Today Sports / Reuters)
(USA Today Sports / Reuters)

A new documentary series, co-produced by the quarterback, Michael Strahan, and Gotham Chopra, is a surprisingly meditative look at the way sports give people a sense of meaning in life.

It turns out football players aren’t half-bad sociologists. Religion of Sports, a new TV documentary series, is the work of three odd bedfellows: Tom Brady, the ultra-famous New England Patriots quarterback; Michael Strahan, the former New York Giant and current Good Morning America co-host; and Gotham Chopra, the filmmaker and son of Deepak Chopra, the New Age, self-help, alternative-medicine-advocating guru. Over six episodes, the show, which airs on DirecTV’s Audience network, follows athletes and fans from the worlds of NASCAR, rodeo, Mixed Martial Arts, baseball, soccer, and online multi-player video games. The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”

Chopra is, at best, working in loose metaphor. Defining “religion” is devilishly difficult, and broad categories like “Hinduism,” “Islam,” “Christianity,” “Judaism,” and “Buddhism” encompass immense diversity of belief and practice. The new series stretches the word “religion” almost to the point of meaninglessness; likewise, “priests” and “gods” may be poetical ideas and useful figures of speech, but they’re not very precise descriptions for figures like the racing giant Dale Earnhardt Sr. or the revered MMA fighter Anderson Silva.

This conceptual nitpick isn’t meant to undermine the project, though. In parsing “the religion of sports,” Chopra and his star-powered co-producers are trying to understand a resilient form of meaning making and community formation in the United States. It seems a little silly to group Chopra and co. with social theorists like Alexis de Tocqueville and contemporary scholars who worry that America’s community structures are fraying. But, incredibly, that’s the project they’ve created: a sort of jock’s guide to civil society. While the series can, at times, come across as a rosy-eyed passion project, its central insight—that sports can be understood as a way that people find belonging—reveals a rich theme for artists who seek to grapple with the strong sense of cultural division and isolation experienced today by Americans of different ethnic, class, and political backgrounds.

While Strahan and Brady apparently brought athletes’ perspectives, along with prestige and access, to the series, Chopra seems to be the project’s main driver. When he set out to make the documentaries, he told me, he was inspired by shows like This American Life: “Sports is the backdrop, but we’re trying to find great stories.” In one early episode, a Marine who lost both his legs in Afghanistan, Joey Jones, describes how important NASCAR is to his family. In another, Cat Zingano, an MMA fighter, describes the way her husband’s suicide made it difficult for her to keep competing. Scenes toggle between emotional interviews and action on the field or in the ring; shots of sweat-filled training sessions are mixed with archival footage of hospital visits and home movies. The series apparently wants to be artsy enough for the documentary crowd with sufficient drama to satisfy casual channel flippers—intriguing for sports fans and sociology nerds alike.

“The sports fan is the easy audience. [The nerds] are more the audience that I’m interested in,” Chopra said, going on to describe himself as the lone sports enthusiast in a family of intellectuals. He sees this series in part as an answer to people such as his wife, who couldn’t understand why he spent weeks in despair after the Red Sox lost to the Yankees in 2003. His father, Deepak, is “not only … not involved in the project—he’s not a sports fan, at all,” Chopra said. “He’s one of those people who’s like, ‘Wait, what? Why do these guys get paid so much money, and why do people care so much? Why are they wearing their hats backward?’”

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Emma Green

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