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?’”
At times, the series seems to draw directly from the Chopra family tradition; each episode opens and closes with Gotham’s voice pronouncing wise-sounding aphorisms like, “As long as there are those who dare, there will be those who soar,” and “Sacrifices often go unanswered. No matter how much is given, the answer is silence.” Despite this tendency, Chopra claims to “hate the word ‘self-help,’ which is ironic [given] the family I’ve grown up in.” Most of the time, he avoids diagnosing and narrating his subjects’ spiritual lives, instead letting them describe their own relationships to sports. And that’s where things get interesting.
“Sometimes, especially when money isn’t very prevalent, and the way you make money is hard-earned, it’s a 9-to-5 paycheck, you need something that brings your community together,” says Jones, the Marine, in the NASCAR episode, which aired before Thanksgiving. “There are a lot of places where that’s ... religion, and going to church on Sunday. But for this part of the world—for where I grew up at—your church is on Saturday night."
It’s possible Jones chose that comparison because he was being interviewed for a documentary about religion and sports, but it’s fascinating nonetheless. In a lot of ways, sports do resemble the structure of religion and other communal activities. For fans, they lend a rhythm to the calendar year; they provide a space for meeting and socializing with people who have common interests; and they offer shared experiences of excitement and disappointment and hopefulness. For athletes, sports can provide spiritual-like experiences of “being in the zone,” and they require extreme amounts of physical and mental discipline.
Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.
But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.
One reason Americans’ steady interest in sports doesn’t mirror their declining interest in fraternal groups or religious organizations might lie in the nature of the activity: While sports are a form of communal bonding, they are also a form of consumption and entertainment. Although public polling is an imperfect tool for understanding people’s identities, Gallup has found that people with incomes greater than $75,000 are significantly more likely to identify as sports fans compared to their less wealthy peers. And this makes sense: Things like season football tickets or rodeo gear require a lot of cash. Just as many people’s religious experiences are mediated through fallible institutions, many sports fans and athletes give their money, time, and bodies over to large, profit-making companies like NASCAR and the National Football League. It’s a privileged kind of communal bonding, a fact that Chopra, who calls himself a “true believer” in the religion of sports, doesn’t necessarily emphasize.
Romantic though Chopra’s take on sports may be, it’s still a satisfying starting point for artistic investigation. The series takes leisure seriously as a way that people of different backgrounds might find kinship, at a time when doing so seems nearly impossible. Every year, Chopra said, he tries to hit up a Red Sox game at the opening of the season. “I sit in those stands, and I look across the ‘congregation’ … and I’m like, ‘I don’t know how much I have in common with these people anymore,’” he said. “And yet in this one thing, for these three hours, we have something in common: We share a mythology. We share a belief system. We share an experience. ... I wish we could have more of it right now. I think we need it.”