Film & TV

Film Review: ‘National Champions’: Should College Student Athletes Unionize?

BY Mark Jackson TIMEDecember 14, 2021 PRINT

December 10, 2021 | R | 1h 56m

“National Champions” is a crackling, high-voltage, testosterone-intensive sports drama about college football, where nary a down of football is played, and yet you can’t look away for the entire two-hour runtime. That’s a pretty neat trick.

So what’s the premise? Unionization. A recent presidential hopeful wanted to double union membership in America, while the more conservatively inclined know unions to be one of the many insidious tools of communism.

Is there ever a time when organizing is a good thing?

History has demonstrated that protected union workers become prone to the temptation of exploiting the system and getting lazy. But what about the idea that college student athletes are an endless supply of free labor, who line the pockets of management, coaches, and commissioners with multibillions but who themselves (albeit rewarded with valuable scholarships) see not a dime of it?

And what about the vast majority of college sports also-rans who don’t get to go to the NFL, NHL, MLB, or NBA and can easily end up spending the rest of their lives with debilitating injuries? What about health insurance for them?

As mentioned, there’s zero gridiron action in this film; it’s all about the interactions between the players, coaches, sports journalists and anchors, behind-the-scenes mega-wealthy boosters, cold-blooded freelance fixers, and likewise heartless NCAA Grand Poobahs in the lead-up to the fictitious Snickers College Football Championship.

There’s tangible clock-ticking suspense. And although it’s a conventional message movie, it raises genuine issues that beg vigorous debate, and couches them in the context of a solid drama that can be enjoyed even by non-football fans who don’t know a double-reverse from a mascot dance or what position Tom Brady plays.

Clock Starts Ticking

A national title war is set to take place between the undefeated Wolves (a fictitious Missouri university team) going up against the 13-1 Cougars at the New Orleans Caesars Superdome. Three days before the big game, the Wolves’ Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) pulls a quick smoke-and-mirrors trick to avoid team bed check (facilitated by his roomie with whom he’s in cahoots), exits the massive Hyatt Hotel where he and his fellow Wolf pack are staying, and drops a bomb into collegiate football as we know it.

man stands in front of window in National Champions
LeMarcus James (Stephan James) attempts to organize college football players, in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

He issues a call to arms, a challenge to revolt—first via social media and then through well-timed interviews, to his teammates and their opponents alike. The call? To boycott the championship game, unless the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) agrees to begin the practice of compensating players as university employees and not as “amateur” athletes.

LeMarcus, a blue-chip NFL prospect and classic hero figure, moves with the supreme confidence and self-possession of the top-flight quarterback and leader that he is, bristling with intelligence, media savvy, and well-thought-out tactics consistently a few steps ahead of those scrambling to play catch-up ball.

He speechifies like an urban Henry V doing a union-recommending version of “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more; Or close the wall up with our English dead.” He references biblical passages, repeatedly hammering away at the injustice inherent in the system, and quickly winning over collegiate football players nationwide, not to mention an already overwhelmingly sympathetic public.

And because it’s abundantly clear that LeMarcus is putting a potential multimillion-dollar career on the line (due to being a shoo-in as a top-ranked NFL draft pick), he’s all the more persuasive as a selfless martyr for the cause. Which of course makes him his coach’s and the NCAA upper echelon’s worst nightmare.

man in red shirt in National Champions
Coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

Where Is He??!!

A large portion of the movie is concerned with the 11th-hour, pulling-their-hair-out, frantic scrambling by Coach Lazor and his assistant coaches to locate LeMarcus and his roommate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), a mediocre tight end with little to lose. Emmett functions as LeMarcus’s cohort and aide-de-camp, as the two instigators displace quickly from one strategic location after another while LeMarcus spreads his gospel of unionization in person or via the internet.

National Champions
Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig, L) and LeMarcus James (Stephan James) are college football team roommates, in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

However, simultaneously running storylines show us the other characters who stand to lose a lot (billions). These include, in addition to Coach Lazor, his defensive coordinator Coach Dunn (Lil Rel Howery), who’s offered an opportunity to coach the Wolves if Coach Lazor can’t or won’t; lecherous, predatory team booster Rodger Cummings (Tim Blake Nelson); and Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba), a take-no-prisoners NCAA lawyer-fixer with ice water in her veins.

Poe’s prepared to pull the grenade pin on character-assassinating evidence—real or manufactured—to take LeMarcus down if he doesn’t back off, such as blackmailing him over an attempted murder case involving his half brother. 

woman and man face off in National Champions
Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba) confronts NCAA bigwig Richard Everly (David Koechner) as to where unaccounted funds have disappeared, in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

There’s also a subplot affair between Coach Lazor’s wife, Bailey (Kristin Chenoweth), and one of LeMarcus’s professors (Timothy Olyphant). What’s that professor teach? Marxism. Hmmm.

four people watch TV in National Champions
(L–R) Luke (Jaden Begnaud), Coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), Bailey Lazor (Kristin Chenoweth), and Coach Ronnie Dunn (Lil Rel Howery), in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

Performances

Stephan James offers a simmering, implosive performance as LeMarcus, whose ultimate motive doesn’t become clear until the last minute of the film. LeMarcus’s bro-tastic as well as Bible-and-prayer-packed relationship with teammate Emmett suggests more than a little that there might be faith-based financing behind the making of “National Champions.”

J.K. Simmons plays a coach who sympathizes with his quarterback’s vision and mission but not enough to lend support, and whose character echoes various real-life, foot-in-mouth, racist faux pas by college coaches, not to mention NFL, MLB, and NBA team owners. He’s a hot-tempered, foul-mouthed father-figure à la his lead role in “Whiplash,” but not similarly sadistic.

 three men, one with red shirt in National Champions
(L–R) LeMarcus James (Stephan James), Coach James Lazor (J.K. Simmons), and Richard Everly (David Koechner), in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

The movie is strewn with blockbuster monologues, the most poignant and complex of which is Uzo Aduba’s, partially because like LeMarcus she’s also black. Her normally cutthroat character at one point slams LeMarcus’s take on college sports with a powerful defense of the NCAA system and a very different view of the various ways athletic scholarships can advance upward mobility.

A former track athlete herself, she calls into question how his vision might affect the funding of the less popular collegiate sports teams, such as swimming, track, field hockey, and so on, if colleges and universities were to wind up being forced into providing salaries and benefits to their entire football rosters. Which would immediately domino-effect into the high-profile college hoops programs as well, come to think of it. 

black woman white man in National Champions
Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba) and Mark Titus (Jeffrey Donovan), in “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

Jeffrey Donovan of “Sicario” fame plays an often grinning but subtly menacing NCAA executive. Executive producer and Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson cameos as himself, and there are a number of cameos by recognizable athletes and sports journalists also playing themselves.

Real Life

The film acknowledges the new NCAA policy that allows players to monetize their names, images, and likenesses, and profit commercially. So real-world change is actually already afoot. Is it good change? Also, the entire venture is uncannily well-planned; the real-life college football playoff championship game will take place in Indianapolis on Jan. 10, 2022.

So the question remains: Is the premise of “National Champions” a valid beef? Should there be a union for collegiate student-athletes? As we know, all things related to communism are capable of looking more or less innocuous on paper, but unless adhered to with impeccable morals and values, they immediately lead to a slippery slope that dead-ends in the basest instincts of the human race—which is exactly the outcome that Karl Marx designed it to achieve.

While the film is riveting, the utterly generic, titular blah-ness is unfortunate. This movie needed a really memorable title; it’s an important issue that needs debating in America. So—to organize, or not to organize college sports. That is the question.

Movie poster for National Champions
Movie poster for “National Champions.” (Scott Garfield/STX Films)

‘National Champions’
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Starring: Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Kristen Chenoweth, Timothy Olyphant, Alexander Ludwig, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Donovan, Uzo Aduba
Running Time: 1 hour, 56 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Dec. 10, 2021
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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