Awards Daily’s Jazz Tangcay talks to producer Gotham Chopra whose Religion of Sports explores the social impact of sports in culture.
Religion of Sports is a six-part docu-series that examines unique examples where sports profoundly influence societies and cultures in a manner that extends far beyond merely entertainment value. From the fascinating story of the FC Lampuedusa made up entirely of international refugees to Baseball at San Quinten to Rock Climbing and bringing Fencing to the inner city kids of Brooklyn, Religion of Sports takes viewers on a weekly global journey, celebrating the transcendent power of sports.
I caught up with producer Gotham Chopra recently to discuss the show and that world of sports that impacts people almost in the way religion does.
What’s your earliest memory of sports?
I have memories going back to the early 1980s growing up in Boston around my hometown teams – the Celtics and Red Sox mostly. Those were my formative years and favorite teams. But I’d say the really indelible memory was in 1986, Game 2 of the first round of the NBA Finals. A friend of my family used to take me to games, and so I got to see in person when Michael Jordan score 63 points in a double overtime loss against the Celtics. It was like witnessing a miracle live. It was the most dominant performance I have ever seen, and to this day I marvel at what Jordan did. I think after the game, Larry Bird – a veritable Saint to us in his own right – said something like “that wasn’t a basketball player, that was God disguised as Michael Jordan.” I’d have to agree.
When did it become something you started to love?
It’s hard to pinpoint a single moment. Sports was part of the cultural fabric of Boston. I’m first generation American – the first person in my family to be born outside of South Asia and specifically in the US. So for me, sports – and specifically the Celtics, Patriots, Bruins, and Red Sox – were part of my American assimilation. More than any other religion, more than music, television etc. It’s what defined my Americanism.
I’d say it’s more than falling in love with sports, as much as just knowing that it became a part of who I was in those early impressionable years. During that era, the Celtics were the only real successful franchise of the four, and I was lucky enough through a friend to get to attend a good amount of games every year – including playoffs. So I’d say that really was my seminary – Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish were like the holy trinity for me and there’s never been any looking back!
Sports, no matter where you are in the world is a religion. Can you talk about where the idea came from?
It’s a fundamental reality. No matter where you go on planet earth, people engage in sports and competition. It could be on the biggest stage. The rivalry between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, two of the most lucrative sports franchises in the world, is epic and draws tens of millions of viewers from around world. Or it could be a tiny little pond hockey league in rural Canada that only the people from the town care about and watch.
Regardless, they’re all a part of the same institutional church of sports because for them sports matter. They mean something beyond box scores, wins and losses, and stats. Sports give their lives meaning and purpose and significance. So the idea is really just part of the DNA of sports and how we as fans or competitors – no matter where we are from or who we cheer for – are engaged with them.
Sports, also bonds people no matter what, did you find that when making this series?
I think when you travel the world and drop in on communities where they are passionate about sports – especially regional ones like stock car racing in the south or mountain climbing in Montana or a soccer rivalry in Glasgow – you understand how sports are far more than just a game, but really the glue that often pulls a community together. I especially like observing it in those smaller communities, or even smaller more niche sports.
It’s the difference between traveling to Rome and getting to visit the Vatican – which is amazing, but you need to stay behind the red velvet ropes – and then getting to go to a tiny little church and being able to sit in the pews, stand on the alter, open up the scriptures etc. You can touch and feel and really get a sense of why sports matter to people and how it becomes the collective faith for a people.
What do you use as guidance when it comes to an episode, such as the Lampudesa episode and even more recently Conrad Anker in Rockclimbing?
Characters. Good storytelling is always about finding compelling characters. That’s the case with both FC Lampedusa and Conrad, albeit on different ends of the spectrum. Lampedusa is made up of young players who, have already overcome enormous odds to play on the team. The refugee narrative is one that goes wayyyyy back in different religious traditions, and yet still it’s the refugees and their individual stories that really resonate.
Conrad is wisdom personified. He is the wise man who has been to the mountaintop (several times) and then descended to share those learnings with the rest of us. He has an elegance and dignity that I think is mythic in its own right. When you find characters like that, the sport and everything else becomes the backdrop for a powerful story.
Episode 2 was fascinating as is every one, but when you think of San Quinten you think of the prison. Then you have this inspiring story about baseball, how do you get these guys to open up?
I think most people want to share their stories. Even if their lives are full of suffering or pain or they are in dire circumstances – they want their lives to have meaning and significance. Specific to San Quentin, I think there are two real reasons that allowed us to succeed there. One, the creative team that we assembled on the ground led by our director Tomas Leach and producer Mike Gattanella as well as our cinematographer Jessica Young. They are not just skilled at what they do, but deeply respectful of their subjects.
And that’s the second force at work here – showing the men inside the prison, all of whom have committed terrible crimes – a level of respect and dignity. There’s no question that earned those prisoners’ trust and respect which created a path to get them to be open and honest about their stories.
Do you feel that kids these days are playing less sports?
Not really. As time passes, different trends pick up or recede. These days maybe fewer kids are playing football because of concerns over head trauma or less baseball because it’s just not as popular as it once was. But on the other hand, we see the rise in extreme sports or x-games or of course, e-sports (which I know many people don’t even regard as a legit sport).
I have a 10-year-old son and his sports passion is Tai Kwon Do. I think the times we live in with our ability to tap into more information and resources via the digital world enable people to pursue their passions which may mean fewer people in the big sports, but probably more people in more niche sports.
I didn’t know e-sports existed until this show. Can you talk about that and where you see it going?
E-sports is probably the fastest growing sport in the world. It’s made up of individuals or teams (depending on the game) that compete online against one another. It’s been around for a while – as technology has enabled us to connect more fluidly via the internet – but the inflow of money, sponsors, and fans has really propelled it to another level in the last few years. Stadiums now sell out in places like LA or Toronto or Seoul within minutes of tournaments being announced. And millions of people tune in to watch online.
I think there’s been a stereotype that video gamers are nerdy and sloppy couch potatoes, but that’s really changing fast and isn’t really the reality any more in the sport. E-sports requires tremendous endurance – to be able to play for hours on end – as well as mental agility, hand-eye coordination. These are characteristics and qualities that have been at the heart of great athletes in other sports for decades so a lot of the top e-sports teams are now adapting different techniques to enhance those skills amongst their team members. It’s fascinating trend to watch and likely means better competitors, teams, and a rise in the sport in general as a result.
Who’s going to the Superbowl next year?
I am biased because I’m friends and colleagues with Tom Brady. He’s also got a pretty great track record this time of year so I’m gonna go with the Patriots versus… does it really matter? Hard to pick on the other side since there are a lot of strong teams with no clear favorite now that the Eagles lost Carson Wentz. I guess I’ll go with the Rams since I now live in LA. Can’t say I’m a big fan yet, but I like their smart young coach and it’s always good for the local vibe when the hometown team is successful!
Do you have plans for a third season? I feel there’s so much more to tell with this story?
In my mind, there’s a third season, a fourth, a fifth etc.! I really believe Religion of Sports can and will be a great franchise because there are so many sports stories – and storytellers – around the world waiting to be showcased and have their stories told. We’ve already shown that there are great stories all around the US as well as places like Glasgow, and Hamburg, and New Zealand etc. And we now are on the receiving end of so many people sending us ideas and stories which I find really exciting. My dream is that the franchise continues and grows and becomes – not unlike ESPN’s amazing 30 for 30 franchise – something that filmmakers really want to be a part of. We’ll see!!
Religion of Sports airs Wednesdays at 8pm on Audience.