In ‘Religion of Sports,’ a search for why sports matter so much to so many – For The Win
There’s a scene toward the end of the first episode of Religion of Sports, a documentary series from Gotham Chopra, that feels almost too scripted, too sublime.
The protagonist of the episode, a veteran with two prosthetic legs, is shown at the Coca-Cola 600 Sprint Cup Series race in Charlotte. He’s in the pit, carefully climbing a ladder, as a snippet from a previous interview plays.
“There are very few people that understand the welding of human and machine like an amputee, because literally parts of our body are made out of machines. And we have to learn to love and trust those parts like they’re our own body in order to take care of them and use them. One of those people are NASCAR drivers — I truly believe that. When they sit in that seat, strap in, they have to be one with that car. I’ve got two feet of machines underneath me as I roam this earth. I’ve gotta know where those feet land. I’ve gotta know if they’re bent, or straight. If something’s broke, or loose. I gotta be able to feel it with the vibration, with my senses. And I couldn’t imagine the drivers of those cars not feeling the exact same way.”
It is a poet’s observation, backed by chilling cinematography. I literally gasped the first time I watched it. I’ve watched it 10 times since and it — more so than an interview with Gotham or an email exchange with executive producer Michael Strahan — helped me understand the mission of the series, which was recently renewed for a second season.
Religion of Sports does not look at how religion intersects with sports; it’s not about prayer circles at the end of football games. Instead it seeks to understand how sports has come to function as religion; how it has developed into a force that, for better or worse, gives us meaning, pulls us together, drives us apart, hollows us out and makes us whole.
Chopra — whose father, Deepak, needs no introduction — admits that this show has been brewing inside him his entire life. He spent his early childhood in Boston, falling for the teams there, hearing his father tell anyone who would listen about how to find balance and meaning. For Deepak, sports fandom played no role in that. Gotham’s world was different. Here he explores why, to so many, sports matter so much.
And though he has directed many projects with a commercial orientation — that is, films focused on big-name athletes like Kobe Bryant likely to reach a wide audience — he has committed here to focusing on unknown, everyday people. Chopra is a devoted New England Patriots fan, and quarterback Tom Brady is an executive producer on the series. Chopra was there when Brady led the greatest Super Bowl comeback in history, and he called it “a transcendent experience.” But that’s not the sort of story he wants to tell.
“What we found filming the first season is, not only is sports a religion, in some ways it is a better religion,” he said. “Other religions require faith and dogma. Sports requires participants. You show up, miracles happen. … It just fuels people. Sports definitely has a dark side. There’s a lot of money, too many shadows. But there is still something pure about sports. The farther you get away from the billion dollar sports leagues the more you see what it means to people and communities.”
The approach makes for edifying television in an era still mostly focused on arguing endlessly about whatever manufactured controversy happens to be popular on any given day. It is true that, thanks to ESPN’s 30 for 30 series and Netflix’s Last Chance U, sports documentaries are finding an audience in a way they never have. One of the best films I’ve seen recently, Medora, is as much an examination of our country’s politics as it is an homage to what basketball still means in small-town Indiana. But Chopra is thankful to have found a partner in AT&T’s AUDIENCE Network — only available on DirectTV and AT&T U-verse, sadly — looking to fund substantive work.
“We have a partner willing to play the long game with us,” he said. “We’re hoping to build a franchise that will resonate with people.”
Certainly attaching Strahan and Brady’s names to the project is an attempt at reaching a broader audience. Strahan “knows everyone,” says Chopra, and has been instrumental in making connections. Brady’s role is more spiritual, befitting of a player who, monk-like (if monks could marry super models and endorse pajamas), has devoted so much of himself to playing football. He’s given feedback on the characters in the show, pointing out those he finds especially compelling.
Though Chopra has not completely settled on the stories he’ll tell in Season 2, he’s planning to look into German soccer fans who protest sexism, fascism and homophobia as well as the annual Bloods vs. Crips basketball game/cease-fire.
“We’re trying to find stories that will resonate,” Chopra said. “These are human stories, about how we live, with sports as the backdrop. If we steer away from the biggest stars and leagues we can take a closer, more authentic look into how sports plays a role in the way they live.
“Certainly the bigger, more mainstream sports have a similar pull on people, but this gives us a unique lens to see it through.”