If you think National Champions is a story about college football, you may be disappointed. I don’t recall seeing a single football play (although I may have missed some clips in the TV sports hype that opens the film). Rather this is a film about the business juggernaut that is college football as it has evolved in our culture. And it’s not a flattering picture of this multi-billion-dollar enterprise. Directed by Ric Roman Waugh from a script by Adam Mervis, this film is about exploitation under the guise of amateurism and student athletics.
The story begins 72 hours before the National Championship game. We see the hype the TV networks are churning out about this game and the two great players who will lead their teams. One of those players is LaMarcus James (Stephan James) the Heisman-winning quarterback expected to go number one in the NFL draft. He’s looking at a bright future with this game as the next step. But LaMarcus and his best friend and teammate Emmitt Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) have snuck out of the team’s hotel and are holed-up incognito. LaMarcus tweets that he and Emmitt are going to boycott the game until college players get paid for their work.
The film then becomes the story of the powers that be in college football (NCAA, TV networks, alumni and boosters, even college administrations) trying to deal with this crisis. In the middle of it all is the team’s head coach, James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), who wants to focus on the game, but now must try to find LaMarcus and talk him into returning. Meanwhile, the coach’s wife (Kristin Chenowith) is leaving him for her professor lover.
This is a film that takes place in hotel rooms. As all those involved with the business of football meet to plan their response (which will not be to do anything meaningful), Marcus and Emmitt sneak into players’ rooms to recruit them to the movement. As the protest builds, the NCAA is determined that the game will go on, even if it means fielding a team of freshmen. They also make use of outside counsel Katherine Po (Uzo Aduba) to unleash a vicious publicity attack on LaMarcus’s reputation.
As this plays out, we hear the arguments on both sides of the issue. College athletes are essentially unpaid labor for a very profitable business. Coaches get millions of dollars a year. The universities get huge sums for shoe contracts. The players theoretically get a college education, but they are expected to put in many hours of practice each week, that hardly allows them the chance to get a real education. (In one of his speeches to other players, LaMarcus references the course in Swahili some took and asks them how to say “Do you want fries with that?”) Recently athletes have won the opportunity to profit off their image and likeness, but that will affect only a few. They have no medical coverage after they leave school for the injuries they receive over their careers. They are not considered employees, so they can’t unionize. As the issue develops, the discussion touches on labor law, the idea of modern slavery, and racism.
Of course, there is also the ideal of the student athlete—people who get a chance at education by playing sports. That concept is still alive, especially in other sports that are largely funded through the revenues of football and men’s basketball. This ideal is better seen in Division II or III or NAIA schools with few or no scholarships, but still having athletic teams.
There is also the community that grows out of college sports. (Not everyone has pro teams near by, but colleges are everywhere.) This encourages alumni and boosters to stay connected. (Not many will contribute to their school because a professor published a new book on the life of Hannibal Hamlin, but get to a bowl game and money will come.)
But to be clear, the film is heavily weighted on the side of LaMarcus and his protest.
LaMarcus is positioned to address these issues. He has power because of his fame and his potential. It’s not for himself that he’s doing this. His payday is coming. (Although the names of Colin Kaepernick and Curt Flood pop up to remind us that those who raise their voices often lose in the process. By doing this, LaMarcus could well drop significantly in the draft—or even end up playing in Canada.) But for the vast majority of college football players, there will be no payday. Emmitt Sunday knows that for him the future will be coaching high school football somewhere. Also, they would not be the beneficiary of their protest, because their time at school is at an end. It is for players yet to come that they are campaigning.
The film makes use of a series of speeches. The ones of note include one by LaMarcus and Emmitt in which they reference biblical parables about the rich, one by Coach Lazor that says that glory, not money, is the measure of greatness, and one by Katherine Po, that defends her actions that seem so malicious.
Although the film sees itself as something of a stand for justice in an oppressive situation, and indeed the policies of NCAA big time sports are exploitive of the talented athletes involved. But even more, it is a portrait of someone who is dedicated to using the gift he has been given to help those who don’t have the future that he has. While this is not the feeding of starving children, the principle that drives LaMarcus can inspire us to see how we can act for others as well.
National Champions is in general theater release.
Photos courtesy of STX Films