‘National Champions’ asks: Should college athletes be paid?

Scott Garfield/Courtesy of STX Films
In "National Champions," college football players Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig, left) and LeMarcus James (Stephan James) take on the NCAA to push for pay for athletes.

In the football movie “National Champions,” we never see the athletes set foot on the field. The entire story takes place inside hotel rooms and conference rooms. It’s like setting a movie about astronauts entirely inside NASA’s Houston control room. 

It’s not so much a sports movie as it is a morality play. “National Champions” poses the question: How far would you go to stand up for a principle? It weighs the trade-offs of taking a firm stance – including the loss of money, status, and close relationships. 

The story begins 73 hours prior to a championship title game in New Orleans. One of the two teams, the (fictional) Missouri Wolves, is poised to win the first-ever title for veteran coach James Lazor (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons, taking a break from Farmers Insurance ads). Its quarterback, LeMarcus James (Stephan James), is expected to become the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. But LeMarcus has more on his mind than being immortalized in a future Madden video game. He tweets that he’s not going to play in the championship unless the NCAA starts paying college athletes. 

Why We Wrote This

How far would you go to stand up for a principle? The film “National Champions” weighs the trade-offs of taking a firm stance – including the loss of money, status, and close relationships, says the Monitor’s chief culture writer.

“All of this money is predicated on one underlying principle: free labor,” LeMarcus declares. “It’s un-American, it’s exploitative, and it speaks to the darkest spots of the national soul.”

The young Black player is alluding, of course, to slavery. The movie raises issues of racial inequality, but it also resists depicting Black people as victims without agency. At one point, an NCAA official offers a Black assistant coach an opportunity to take over from Missouri’s Lazor. But the assistant isn’t interested in the tokenism of becoming the first Black coach in a championship game. “I’m one of the best assistant coaches in this country. I don’t need a handout,” he says. 

Scott Garfield/Courtesy of STX Films
Oscar winner J.K. Simmons stars as James Lazor, coach of the fictional college team the Missouri Wolves, in "National Champions."

At first, “National Champions” plays too much like a didactic TED Talk – but with so much profanity that you’d think the screenwriter was getting paid by the F-word. In a series of speeches and press interviews, the quarterback relays figures about how much money the NCAA and its officials make. He lays out a detailed manifesto for reform. LeMarcus and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) persuade more players to join the boycott, marshaling their campaign from a hidden location. The NCAA feels as if it’s been held hostage, so it calls in a negotiator, lawyer Katherine Poe (Emmy winner Uzo Aduba). Her hard-hitting style would make an offensive tackle backpedal. 

The hitherto polemical script by Adam Mervis, who also wrote the stage play the film is based on, becomes infinitely richer by embracing complexity as Katherine digs up information about LeMarcus’ past. (It’s possible that the film’s overly drab gray color palette is metaphorical – issues aren’t always black or white.) Katherine also offers a counterargument to the professionalization of college sports. She confronts the quarterback in a captivating performance that merits Oscar consideration for Aduba.

“You think I don’t know what it’s like to be without heat in your house? That I don’t know what it’s like to not be able to afford your jersey, as you’re avoiding your coach because you don’t have the $50 to pay for it?” she says, revealing that she once had a full-ride track scholarship at Duke. She took the money to escape poverty.

If the NCAA starts paying college athletes, she muses, what would it mean for less popular – and thus less financially lucrative – sports that aren’t basketball or football? What would be the fate of volleyball in Minnesota, soccer in Idaho, or softball in South Carolina, and all the students who might no longer get a leg up by going to college?

“National Champions” hurtles to an effective climax in which LeMarcus must weigh whether he can reach a win-win compromise with the NCAA and play in the big game. By peeling back the layers of the characters on both sides of the issue, the movie offers a potent reminder that, often, policy debates become mired in talking points. The danger is that we’ll miss the human stories at the heart of such matters. 

“National Champions” is rated R for language throughout and sexual references.

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