Tonight, a new doc series called Religion of Sports, premieres on the outer reaches of your cosmic dial, on DirecTV. If you can get there, it’s worth a visit. The pilot paints an affecting, vérité portrait of race car drivers on the fringe, specifically, a veteran who lost both his legs but who finds meaning in the sport. The series gets into the depths of sports fandom, a term we may sometimes forget is rooted in fanaticism. Get where Executive Producer (and director of several episodes) Gotham Chopra is going with this?
If you recognize the name, Chopra is indeed the son of spiritual guru Deepak Chopra, of whom the younger Chopra once made the documentary, Decoding Deepak, and has gone on to helm several sports docs (The Little Master, Kobe Bryant’s Muse). The guy takes sports seriously and maybe so should we. I asked Chopra some questions…
Tom Roston: The series sounds a bit like ESPN’s 30 for 30 franchise; how is it different?
Gotham Chopra: That’s a great compliment! 30 for 30 has definitely been a model for us. I’m a big fan of that franchise. Creatively, I’d say Religion of Sports is more active storytelling than 30 for 30. Whereas 30 for 30 often focuses on iconic historic moments in sports and then peels back the onion so fans can understand the lesser known narrative, in Religion of Sports there’s a lot more vérité storytelling – we’re attempting to show why sports matter, how they provide meaning, purpose and significance in the lives of fans, athletes, or people involved in sports.
Roston: What’s your personal take on the religiosity/spirituality of sports?
Chopra: I don’t think this is just a comparative exercise or that sports are a metaphor for religion. I believe sports are a religion. Everything that we associate with religion and spiritual traditions exist in sports. We make pilgrimages to sports cathedrals and temples. We believe in curses and superstitions. We witness moments of redemption and revelation. To me, there’s genuine spiritual experience in sports, be it as a fan when we sit in the stands and become a part of something greater than ourselves, or as an athlete when we take on the discipline and focus to perform at an elite level, to reach our full (physical) human potential.
Roston: It’s hard not to make a connection between your famous father’s spiritual background and this series. Can you characterize your relationship with your dad when it comes to sports?
Chopra: Ha. I’m not sure there is much of one. My dad is one of those guys who just doesn’t get why people like me love sports so much or why athletes are so idolized or make so much money. In some ways though, that’s really who this series is for. I want those people to watch it. I want to say – “see this? This is why I care so much. These are my people.”
Roston: How has fellow EP Tom Brady (along with Michael Strahan) provided creative input?
Chopra: I’ve come to this series largely as a fan — that’s my POV and what shapes the way in which I see sports. Tom isn’t just a fan. He grew up in the Bay Area and loved the 49ers and worshiped Joe Montana. He’s also someone who lives at the epicenter of sports faith. He’s told me in the past, “I get it. Playing every Sunday and being the focus of 70,000 fans whose hopes and dreams sit on your shoulders, having to get in synch with all of your teammates in the moment, for me sports is a spiritual experience.” That’s been a great addition to the genesis of our series—to have that POV.
Specifically, as I have embarked on some of the specific episodes and scheduled interviews with drivers like Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Kurt Busch or fighters like Ronda Rousey (in our UFC episode), Tom’s chimed in with questions and ideas. I think like a lot of us, he’s curious about how these athletes do what they do, how they perform at such an elite level amidst the controlled chaos of competition.
Roston: The pilot episode is about car racing and it takes us to “red state” territory; can you reflect a bit on the power of nonfiction film to help build bridges to people not living in the bicoastal, neoliberal bubble?
Chopra: It was fascinating for me to spend a few weeks down in the deep south making an episode about racing and NASCAR. I thought of that often — me being an East Coast Ivy League intellectual hanging out with southern boys (and girls) down at the dirt track. Truthfully, we didn’t have a lot in common culturally or politically, but we had a shared appreciations for sports and family and community and I found that reassuring and even inspiring.
I think one of the great things about sports (as a fan) is that when you attend a game, you can look across the stands at the congregation and more often than not you’ll see people of every race, ethnicity, religion, socio economic class, lifestyle etc and while you may have a lot of differences you’re sharing this experience, you’re beholden to a collective mythology and shared rituals. In a country (and world) that often feels more polarized and divisive than ever, I think we’d benefit from integrating more of the religion of sports ethic into our lives.
Roston: What are some of the future episode subjects?
Chopra: UFC, rodeo, minor league baseball, e-sports, Scottish football. One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed in working on this series is that we’ve been able to explore niche sports, and really see the “religion of sports” practiced at the community level. It’s the difference between going on a big expensive transatlantic trip to the Vatican and getting quickly ushered through St. Peter Basilica versus going to your local Church where you can kneel on the pew, walk up to the altar, chat with the pastor etc. Sports at the local level is something you can touch and feel and experience in a way that is deeply spiritual and powerful.
Roston: Can the series only be seen on DirecTV?
Chopra: For now it can only be seem on DirecTV’s Audience Network (channel 239) and ATT U-Verse (channel 1114). But I know DirecTV is also launching a new digital app where you won’t need to be a subscriber to download the App and view content.
Religion of Sports premeires Tuesday, November 15 at 8 ET on DirecTV’s Audience Network and ATT U-Verse.