Events surrounding college athletics and the idea of compensating “student athletes” have shifted so quickly that it’s a little surprising that a motion picture — which takes a few years to gestate, finance, cast and produce — could keep up and have anything relevant to say about the subject.
But the twisty gridiron drama “National Champions” manages that in a tale of idealism, ulterior motives, big money and a soap opera-sized cast of many moving parts. Well-cast, occasionally surprising and moderately suspenseful, as they say in sports, it “goes out a winner.”
It’s about a top-draft-choice-to-be quarterback (Stephan James of “If Beale Street Could Talk” and TV’s “Homecoming”) and his far-less celebrated roommate/teammate from the trenches (Alexander Ludwig of “Vikings”) staging a believable but well-planned escape from the team/media bubble of a Superdome-adjacent hotel, going online and announcing a strike.
As QB LaMarcus James tells his Missouri Wolves teammates, and stars among their scheduled foes for the Big Game a couple of days away, “I ain’t playing until they pay me.”
But wait, doesn’t a media darling like LJ get “name, image and likeness” money? Isn’t he about to land a fat NFL contract? Sure. He says he’s doing this for all of the players who take the risk, without even health insurance, with slim-to-none prospects of every getting that NFL signing bonus — guys like his roommate.
Lobbying other players with an evangelical fervor, he uses “collective action” and asks “You ever read ‘The Jungle?'” Somebody went to class if they’re taking inspiration from labor agitator Upton Sinclair’s early 20th century novel.
Everybody is blindsided by this. Other players are hard to convince, sniffing around for some other motive in LJ’s actions. “You can’t square-off with the entire system!” This little stunt “don’t make you Malcom X, bro.”
But in an impromptu press conference, the Wolves’ well-compensated, accomplished but “never won the Big One” coach (J.K. Simmons) looks personally hurt, sputtering “These kids don’t fully understand what they’re doing.” Privately, in war-room meetings with conference and NCAA officials, they get it. “He’s out to destroy the ‘student athlete’ designation,” “This could get out of hand” and “Where in hell IS he?”
If you follow college football at all, everyone in this is a recognizable “type” — the well-paid-but-not-quite-clued-in conference commissioner (David Koechner), the icy NCAA administrator protecting the status quo (Jeffrey Donovan), the assistant coach eyeing the chance to step up (Lil Rel Howery), the “helpful,” corrupt and in-the-loop booster (Tim Blake Nelson), the lawyer-fixer with all her arguments at the ready (Uzo Aduba).
Even the coach’s wife (Kristen Chenoweth), the one character flirting with caricature, has a hint of “sure” about her — once a trophy bride, now a monomaniacal workaholic’s afterthought.
There’s a tendency in Adam Mervis’s script, based on his play, for characters to launch into speeches, for players and coaches to quote the Bible, and for the complications to cross over into a season’s worth of soap opera.
Things get not just “out of hand,” but damned far-fetched at times.
But the lawyer, a Black woman, absolutely should be making the argument that football props up tens of thousands of kids in other sports who would never get a college education otherwise. A couple of pros (Super Bowl-winning QB Russell Wilson among them) almost certainly would speak up for the college kids. And even in-bed-with-the-NCAA ESPN would have to take LaMarcus’s call, putting him on Mike Greenberg’s show to make his case, point out how many houses his multi-millionaire coach has and demand that they “fix the system.”
“National Champions” isn’t set on the field, and that makes it something of a sermon at times — a LOT of times. But hiring stuntman-turned-director Ric Roman Waugh (“Shot Caller,” “Greenland,” “Angel Has Fallen”) insures that there’s a lot of movement and pop to even the hotel-room debates, even as those debates and “other” complications slow the movie down.
And Oscar -winner Simmons and James bring a crackling intensity that lets us feel what each has at risk, a quarterback who could be “Colin Kaepernicked” by the league he is hoping makes him rich, a coach who could lose his job, and maybe a house or two if he can’t inspire his players to play — for free.
It’s a sports movie that’ll make you think, and its release — cleverly-timed for the weekend when the only college tilt is the rare one with real “student athletes,” the Army/Navy game — invites fans to put down the beer, get off those Internet sports gambling sites, and think about what’s going on.
Fat chance? Sure. But hey, sometimes “only a movie” is a movie that has something worth hearing.
Rating: R for language throughout and sexual references
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Stephan James, Uzo Aduba, Alexander Ludwig, Lil Rel Howery, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Tim Blake Nelson, Timothy Olyphant and Kristen Chenoweth
Credits:Directed by Ric Roman Waugh, scripted by Adam Mervis, based on his play. An STX release.
Running time: 1:57