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.