Review: ‘National Champions’

Stephan James And JK Simmons Lead A Propulsive, Honest Sports Drama About The Fight To Pay Student-Athletes

There’s no football in National Champions. Not a single play. But this timely, topical adaptation of Adam Mervis’ play doesn’t need the gridiron to be one of the best movies about college athletics in years. Stephan James takes the field as All-Pro QB LaMarcus James who, joined by religious buddy and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) decides to boycott that weekend’s championship game until the NCAA starts compensating student-athletes, ending unpaid labor practices, which James amounts to slavery. With only 72hrs until the big game, the film takes on an intense ticking-clock scenario that is only occasionally upended by by stagy production and preachy speechifying.

LaMarcus’ demands throw the entire NCAA into upheaval and send the power players into action. JK Simmons plays Coach Lazor, who is thrown for a loop by his star player’s actions, and finds himself besieged by boosters (played by Tim Blake Nelson and the unfortunately-cast Andrew Bachelor), NCAA execs (Jeffrey Donovan), and even a corporate lawyer/fixer Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba) who just want to make sure the game goes off without a hitch. Complicating matters is an ill-fitting subplot involving Lazor’s socialite wife (Kristin Chenowith) as she sneaks around with a philosophy teacher (Timothy Olyphant) with his own agenda.

National Champions is all about the snakes that have their grip around major collegiate sports. And they all come out in force to keep the system in place, even if that means destroying the lives of LaMarcus and others close to him. But LaMarcus is a forceful orator, practically giving a Sunday sermon on the evils of a system that earns billions on the backs of mostly young black men. But Mervis’ screenplay plays it fair on both sides. Nobody comes out of this looking clean, no one’s motives are completely pure, and solid arguments are made on both sides. Aduba gives a terrific scene as Poe forcefully makes the case for the other side, asking legitimately about the welfare of the minor sports when the NCAA is forced to start paying men’s football and basketball players? Do you think they’ll still have enough to spend on scholarships for swimming, track, soccer, and others that don’t bring in the big bucks?

Director Ric Roman Waugh brings the same propulsive energy that he’s employed in underrated crime flicks such as Snitch, and action movies Angel Has Fallen and Greenland. But the film is really driven by James, who is believable and incredibly charismatic as LaMarcus James, who pleads his case so convincingly you believe he can be the next Kaepernick. Speaking of which, the film isn’t without modern context, with references not only to Kaepernick but to COVID-19. With a bevy of real-life players and sportscasters making appearances, it’s clear this is a movie with a message that a lot of athletes support. When exec-producer Russell Wilson shows up to support LaMarcus’ cause, you get the feeling he’s speaking from the heart that maybe National Champions can help spread the word. Whatever your thoughts on this issue, the film tackles it honestly while scoring points for entertainment value.

National Champions is open in theaters now.