The movie proves most effective examining the inequity in a system that has long relied on athletes’ free labor, offering the promise of professional paydays down the road and scholarships in the interim. As is noted in the film, only a small percentage of players will ever see an NFL dollar, while universities and coaches cash in as they sacrifice their bodies, risking the long-term health ramifications that go with it.
The entry point into all of this is Heisman-winning quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James), who announces three days before the national title game that he won’t play unless the NCAA agrees to a list of demands about fairly compensating athletes. He’s joined by roommate Emmett Sunday (“Vikings'” Alexander Lussig), a tight end who knows his final college game is likely the last he’ll ever play.
The ultimatum from the star QB sends shock waves through the college-football establishment, as the heads of the conferences, fearing where the roots of the called-for boycott might extend, enlist LaMarcus’ coach (J.K. Simmons) to talk him out of it.
“This is my football team. They will play for me,” the coach assures them, but the two players appear to have mapped out an elaborate game plan, which includes seeking to convince the opposing team to join them and mounting a pretty astute media strategy.
“National Champions” is on sure footing on that level but begins slipping as it becomes soapier and piles on subplots, one involving the coach’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth) and another the deployment of a sort-of fixer (Uzo Abuda) willing to employ whatever brass-knuckled tactics might be necessary to nip this player revolt in the bud.
“This is a shakedown,” she tells the NCAA honchos, in what increasingly becomes a showdown between David and Goliath, with LeMarcus being warned that he has “everything to lose” and that the powers that be will “Kaepernick him” if he persists.
The story, however, becomes increasingly strained as the pressure mounts to ensure that the game proceeds as planned, depicting the machinations of fat-cat boosters and NCAA officials as they scheme to protect the status quo.
At its best, “National Champions” feels calibrated to provoke a conversation about the flawed framework of college sports, which is talked about plenty and still not enough. Then again, TV networks and sports-related media outlets benefit from the existing system, and many fans would rather just hear about wins and losses.
“National Champions” doesn’t fully succeed in expanding what might have been a segment of HBO’s “Real Sports” into a movie. But it does, or should, provide another reason to pause as the bowl season unfolds long enough to consider, “Who’s really profiting from all this?”
“National Champions” premieres in US theaters on Dec. 10. It’s rated R.