Interview: Gotham Chopra on the Audience Network Series “The Religion of Sports”

Posted on November 7, 2016 at 3:33 pm

Gotham Chopra talked to me about his new series for the Audience Network, “The Religion of Sports,” created with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and NFL Hall of Famer Michael Strahan and premiering November 15, 2016.

Have you always been a big sports fan?

Yes, I have. I grew up in Boston Massachusetts during the 80’s and 90’s and so I’ve just always been a big Celtics, Red Sox, Bruins fan, really a diehard fan of those teams but I would say in general a lover of all sports.

It’s so different being a Red Sox fan now than it was prior to 2004. Not that I would ever go back but there was a sort of magic about that cursed existence. It created a sort of community that is very different than what it is now. They won three championships since then and they are one of those elite institutions now. They have become the Catholic Church where they were sort of the scrappy cults before then.

So what is it that makes sports so visceral and so tribal?

Yes, I think what’s unique about sports is that like religion they create a sense of community, a sense of belonging. Wrigley Field is a sacred space, like it’s a holy land. People go on pilgrimages.

So everything that we associate with religion actually happens in sports. Whereas traditionally religion requires faith and you have to believe in this and you have to do that and they have this dogma and everything, sports requires attendance. If you watch the World Series whether you are a Cleveland fan or you’re a Cubs fan, a miracle is going to happen. You just have to show up and I think that is pretty unique to sports. It is not a metaphor, it is not an allegory, it is a spiritual thing and even people who don’t aren’t even fans, they participate. That last game of the World Series people watched from all walks of life because it’s bigger than sports. That’s why I am very much a true believer. Being a fan is sort of something greater than yourself, it’s really is.

Do you think that there are cultural differences or temperament differences between say fans of baseball, football, basketball, hockey?

Yes, there definitely are. For sure it’s no different than politics, as we are watching some other holy war going on right now. If you come from different cultural backgrounds you are drawn to certain things. Part of what’s been fascinating about working on this series is I’ve been able to explore sports that I never really knew much about. So rodeo and NASCAR and stuff like that. It’s been fascinating to watch those.

One of the episodes is about a Scottish football league. The two city teams in Glasgow the Celtic and Rangers, one which is predominantly Catholic in terms of their fan base and one one predominantly Protestant. In this country let’s there are big rivalries but when you go to a place like that they say, “Wait, hold on, first let us talk about the Crusades, then let’s talk about the Reformation.” You have to go back several centuries to understand the roots of this rivalry. So that certainly has its different cultural complexion than what we necessarily see here.

That being said, there are also certain things that are very similar across all sports, not just from the fans’ perspective but from the athlete’s perspective.

What makes somebody a great athlete?

First of all, certainly they have a gifts, physical gifts, athletic gifts. I’ve been fortunate to work with Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady and David Ortiz, some of the most leading athletes in their respective sports, and I can see there is a competitiveness, there is a commitment, there is a discipline, there is a ambition to be the greatest that I think definitely unites the people at the top. Oftentimes you see with the best athletes that they are not the most physically gifted. There are guys who are and girls who are physically stronger, faster or that are more athletic or whatever but for whatever reason these ones that are so committed to their craft, the ones who are so disciplined no matter the consequence, that is what puts them over the top. And again to sort of spiritualize it there is a sort of almost like a martial arts discipline, even if you watch sort of Kobe Bryant go through a practice by himself it’s a monk in a monastery. I mean there is a routine there that is spiritual that I think is really admirable for me.

What were some of the biggest technological and production challenges of making this series?

We’ve been fortunate and a lot of credit goes to my executive producing partners, Michael Strahan and Tom Brady, you have guys like that who can help you get access but getting access both with athletes and but also in leagues can be very challenging. How do you get on the track at the Coca-Cola 600 NASCAR? Great storytelling depends on characters and in this case access and so that can be an incredible challenge. I think even once you get it because these are, even these more niche sports are so covered to death.

All of these athletes are used to cameras in their faces so trying to get something unique and true out of them can be challenging. And I think what I’ve been lucky about is that we tried to make this series less about just getting the biggest names in sports and instead it is very much about the culture around sports, and finding great fans around which you could tell their stories, those tend to be people who want to share their stories, who want to speak about why this thing is so important to them, that’s an incredible benefit.

Tell me about your project with David Ortiz.

I’ve been working with him all summer pretty much chronicling his last season. It’s a series for ESPN and they have run a number of digital shorts. I just drop in with him for 48 hours at a pivotal time in the season, so like opening day or his last series against the Yankees, stuff like that and just be with him as he was going through that.

And the greatest thing about the athletes especially at that level is like they physically can’t do it anymore even though David had an amazing year but they have to sort of give up something that they love as much as they ever did. I’m a filmmaker, you are a writer, we can kind of keep on doing this and get better at it and get passionate about it over and over again, pretty much for as long as we live. With athletes — I don’t even think David is 40 years old. They have to give it up and then what? And so I think it is fortunate to sort of be able to sort of chronicle a little bit of that over the last few months.

What have you learned about how people show their enthusiasm for teams and athletes?

People practice their faith in a lot of different ways. Attendance is probably the most common one but then of course the bigger the league the more difficult it is. It is super expensive to go to some of these games. Actually what I love is like going to the local dirt track in South Carolina on a Wednesday night. It’s the equivalent of going to the community church as opposed to sort of traveling to the Vatican, right? And you see people practicing their faith really at the grassroots level and so it’s inexpensive, it’s accessible, you can go touch the cars, you can really be a part of it, feel the dirt and again I’m not speaking in metaphors. You have to wash your clothes like eight times to get that dirt out once you come back from the race. So I think at the local level like our baseball episode is at the minor league level where the line between the athlete and the fan is a lot more blurred I guess that it necessarily is at the highest level, the professional level and I think for me to sort of be able to see the faith practiced at that level was pretty inspiring.

And superstition — when the Red Sox were in the World Series I couldn’t watch in a room I had to stand outside of my house and watch through the window holding my favorite baseball bat. There’s not a sports fan alive who doesn’t have some version of that, who wears only this jersey or eats only that food. The bigger the game, the bigger the superstition.

Some fan activities are totally ritualistic and the amazing thing about sports. There is a stereotype associated with the fans who paint their faces, that they come from a sort of economic class but I’ve seen deans of major universities do the same thing. You know they are the most sort of academic, intellectual people but then when they enter into this realm suddenly this tribe thing takes over and again they’re sitting side-by-side with people that they have nothing else in common with. I’ve not lived in Boston for years, like for actually more than half of my life, but I still go back every season, I try to go to an opening day or I go to a game or whatever and literally as I’m sitting there and listening, especially in like a political climate like this election, you listen to what people are talking about, I have nothing in common with these people except for this shared devotion to this thing and I think that’s a good thing. It’s fascinating to me, that sort of sense of belonging really cuts across everything.

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