Q&A: A Documentarian and a Longhorn Explore the Spirituality of Sports

Joe Levin, co-author of Religion of Sports.

Joe Levin, BA, BJ ’21, Life Member, likes to say he’s from Los Angeles via Austin. Even before he attended UT as a Forty Acres Scholar, the fifth-generation Longhorn knew the ritualistic power of athletics. (His Instagram handle is an homage to Colt McCoy, and when he was 7 years old, his parents pulled him out of school the weeks before and after Texas played USC in the Rose Bowl to observe the “religious holiday.”)  

It seems only natural, then, that Levin’s first book is titled Religion of Sports. The book was co-written with Gotham Chopra, award-winning sports filmmaker and son of Deepak Chopra, the alternative medicine guru. Together, the authors drew upon exclusive interviews with greats such as Tom Brady and Serena Williams—and also feature incredible athletes with more obscure stories. 

Sure to captivate any sports fan, the book also offers wisdom to readers of all backgrounds. The Alcalde sat down with Levin to discuss the process of writing with Chopra and their myriad influences.  

How did you become involved with this book?  

I met Gotham way back, when his son and I attended the same elementary school in L.A. I knew he was making a film about Kobe [Bryant] at the time, so I would sneak out at dismissal and tap him on the shoulder, asking for stories. I’m sure he thought I was crazy, but we became friends. He told me about his idea of sports as religion, which comes from his experience not only as a fan but also growing up around spirituality. We’d trade ideas about, what’s the sports version of a hymn? The Red Sox sing “Sweet Caroline.”  

Eventually, Gotham turned that idea into a TV show and then an entire media company, and on every stage of that journey, he was kind enough to bring me along to help out. Then, about a month before my college graduation, he called to say he was working on a book. He was struggling to find a co-author who really got it, which is how he thought of me. Of course, I said yes, and pretty soon, what started when I was in elementary school had turned into a completed manuscript.  

I’m curious about the choice to say, “sports is religion,” versus, “sports is religious,” or “sports is like religion.” Why equivalency instead of simile?  

For one, it’s a more fun argument—but also, both of us genuinely believe it. As a Longhorns fan, I would equate the 2023 Big 12 Championship win to an answered prayer. And I’ve been with my whole family watching a game versus Texas A&M, and we’re all holding hands before Justin Tucker kicks a field goal. I’ve had these moments that are literally religious. And you look at society: How do you teach your kids moral lessons? You put them in sports programs. I think when you actually look at it, it does mean more to people than just being like religion.  

The other perspective comes from talking with all these athletes, like Tom Brady, like Kobe, like Serena. A lot of them are also very devout, but you realize that the way that they’ve ordered their lives around sports can only be described as religious.  

What was the research process like?  

All the stories that are in here are on film and either made it into the cuts of Gotham’s documentaries, or he sent me the unedited material. We would watch 10 hours of Brady stuff, and it was sort of like going and reporting it all over again … That made it easy to turn the film into something that we could use as a scene in the book.  

And then there are cool stories, too, that we sort of stumbled across. For example, there’s a whole chapter about being in the zone, and the religious example for that is Zen Buddhism. I was looking up, where does this idea of being “in the zone,” come from? And it comes from the word, “zen.” And then I started reading about [Bodhidharma, the Buddhist monk credited with creating the Zen branch of Buddhism,] who reached this transcendental state of being “in the zone.” After meditating for days and days, he was thinking, How do I translate this so that other people can reach this state? So he invented kung fu. He was doing sports.  

How did you keep the religious language and the sports lore accessible for readers?   

I’ve always liked sports stories because they’re never about sports. I like Trojan-horsing them in that way. There’s something very accessible about them. I still barely understand how cricket works, for example, but I can get interested in a human story about cricket. Everything is couched in storytelling—stories that, at the end of hearing them, make you realize, “Oh, this is an experience that we all have.”   

What connects all of these theories of greatness, both in religion and sports?  

All of the greatest athletes realize [their success] isn’t just them—it’s a product of the work. And the other thing, too, is that they all love it. When Tom Brady goes on vacation, he brings a giant duffel bag with cones and stuff, and every morning he wakes up and plays football because he loves football. Even today [after retirement], he’s still playing. They don’t lose the love of it. 

How does your knowledge of sports affect your craft of writing?   

Being around these athletes is so inspiring. “Monkish” is the word I would use to describe them. They’re so single-minded. It’s their work ethic, but also understanding that work ethic isn’t necessarily working out until you throw up. It’s more about showing up every day.  

Serena talks about how she would religiously watch all these other sports. She would look at Peyton Manning, at his footwork, and she would call his trainer and get him to teach her the footwork. There are a million examples of that. And it’s the same thing with writing, with whatever you do. You can’t write if you don’t read. You can’t play sports if you don’t watch the other greats and learn from them.  

This interview has been edited and condensed.

CREDIT: Author photo courtesy of Joe Levin




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