It’s a few days before the college football national championship. All players, coaches, and high roller supporters are firmly ensconced in a hotel overlooking the stadium. It’s 72 hours away from the game, and I’d like to say that the anticipation is exaggerated for the sake of the movie, but it is all true… The amount of national attention from the media, from alumni, from fans, and even the average American TV viewer is off the charts for this single game.
That’s why what Heisman-winning star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) decide to do is so earth-shaking. With the attention of the sports world and the country, they announce that they will boycott the game unless student athletes are paid some of the literally billions of dollars that the NCAA rakes in for sports. They have a few more demands, like health insurance, and other shocking no-brainer benefits that are not currently provided, but that is the gist.
Their Coach Lazor (J.K. Simmons) is not pleased, especially when his multi-million dollar contract, not to mention his bonus when his team wins the game, is brought up in comparison with the single-wide mobile home that one player goes home to every night. Sure, these kids can go pro with the NFL, but LeMarcus is one of the lucky few. The truth is, out of over 10,000 college football players, only 300 are drafted to the NFL, and probably only a fraction of those become successful.
As you can see, it is a great topic to chew on, one that has reared up in American cultural discussion recently. Even a few notable NFL players make cameos in the movie as themselves to push the discussion (hi, Russell Wilson!). The films swirls around various behind-the-scenes players, from the NCAA, to the coaching staff, to powerful alumni, tossing around threats and promises to LeMarcus and the multiplying players joining the boycott. It’s all pretty grotesque, and I’m sure the NCAA probably played a hand in this film getting snuck into the theaters with pretty much no advertising or promotion.
Probably the most twisted power player is the league’s legal counsel, played by Uzo Aduba. As a black woman in a power position, you think she’d be the one with empathy for especially the young black men that will be physically and financially broken after their moment of fame. But she brings out some of the most horrific ammo to blackmail the players, from past criminal association, to dirt on family and health. But probably her most interesting outburst is when she talks about how she was also on an athletic scholarship, and she worked it for all its worth. She points out that all of this discussion around money is, in essence, about men’s football and men’s basketball. What about all the other student athletes? Softball, soccer, baseball, etc.? Will they ever benefit from a deal where male players from two sports demand to make a bunch of money? Good point, sister!
National Champions is unique in that for a movie about, in this case, football, you never see a game, nor even a single play. In a way, that shows how the business is so much more than the game itself. It’s money. It’s power players. It’s disposable young men who suffer injuries that will plague them for the rest of their lives. The topic is certainly interesting. This movie blows the lid off the problem and demands discussion, even if the truth is ugly, and there are no easy solutions.