A new documentary series looks at how sports fosters belonging and Tom Brady is one of the people behind it:
The theory, as you might guess from the title, is that sports, broadly constructed, are a kind of religion. As Chopra intones during the introduction, with images of stadiums and religious pilgrimages rolling by, sports “have believers, priests, and gods. They have rituals, miracles, and sacrifices. Sports unite us. They are a calling.”…
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…
Chopra takes this literally: “Sports is an actual faith. It’s not even metaphor. It’s real. You practice these things,” he said. This is debatable—Chopra is looking at religion purely as a matter of practice, while discounting the importance of belief. Sports are not about the metaphysical nature of the universe; they provide no guidebook for the self or community in navigating life.
But, to embrace Chopra’s interpretation of “religion” for a moment, it’s curious to consider the ways in which sports participation has not followed the same trend line as other communal activities. According to organizations like Pew, traditional religious affiliation is steadily declining in the United States; participation in civil-society groups like bowling clubs or parent-teacher organizations has gone down significantly as well. As Americans have pulled away from these kinds of community institutions, their love of sports has stayed relatively constant: According to Gallup, the percentage of Americans who call themselves “sports fans” has hovered around 60 percent for at least the last 15 years.
This sounds like a Durkheimian exploration of a functional religion, another area of social life that has some similar characteristics to religion. Sports involve rituals, collective effervescence, totems, and beliefs. This could range from sports (earlier posts involving the World Cup and the belief of some American sports fans that supernatural forces are involved) to following Apple (earlier post here).
I hope, however, this documentary series doesn’t fall into two common traps with this comparison:
- Sports are the magic elixir that can bring everyone together. (In contrast, many argue today that religion divides people.) Being a fan alongside another fan may bring individuals together for a moment but does it really make the world a better place? Does racism really disappear? Are cities healed? My answer: no and see these earlier posts on the effect of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the ability of soccer teams to bring about urban revival, and the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series. .
- Putting sports fandom and religion side by side suggests that it doesn’t matter ultimately what people believe; it is simply that common beliefs bring people together. Not all beliefs at the same level. Do sports really dictate how most people make major decisions in their life? Do sports provide ultimate meaning? (They may serve this role for a small number of people but religion is still going pretty strong throughout the world.)
The documentary series will reveal how much it gets right about the sociology of sport and religion…