‘National Champions’ Calls for Change in College Sports, to Little Avail

By Nick Ratliff

“National Champions” is a sports drama about two college football athletes fighting for something bigger than themselves. LeMarcus James (Stephan James) is a star quarterback projected to be the number one pick in the upcoming NFL draft, while Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) is a starter who is not projected to make it past the college level.

Three days before the national championship game, these two athletes protest the game on the basis that student-athletes should be paid for their labor. With the number-one player in college football potentially not playing the biggest game of the season, this protest obviously causes a huge controversy and serves as the catalyst for the rest of the film.

After the two players announce their boycott of the game, the coaching staff of their respective teams track them down and try to convince them otherwise. The NCAA has a lot riding on LeMarcus playing in this game because the number-two player in college football will be going up against him.

National Champions Trailer Starring Stephan James & J.K. Simmons

LeMarcus James (Stephan James) is subject to controversy when he boycotts the championship game to protest NCAA athletes’ lack of wages.

Eventually, NCAA officials try to blackmail LeMarcus using an assault case involving his brother. The officials threaten to publicize the case with the intent of putting his brother in prison. However, this threat does not sway LeMarcus because, as we find out later, his brother had committed suicide a few months earlier.

The point of this movie is to show the current problems with the NCAA and its policies.  LeMarcus’ main gripe with the NCAA is that it refuses to pay any players who don’t make it past college level for their labor. Now, this policy has been in place for years, and changing it would be a difficult task to achieve. In the movie, the head NCAA official combats such attempts by warning that smaller college sports programs (volleyball, soccer, and others) would need to be terminated in order to pay for student-athletes wages.

These are problems that the NCAA is currently grappling with in real life. Recently, college athletes have been allowed to make money outside of their scholarships by licensing their likenesses and brands. Before this reform, student-athletes were not even able to have sponsorships. In the movie, LeMarcus is seeking to take things a step further, fighting for all student-athletes to be paid.

National Champions' Review: A College Football Revolution - The New York  Times

The film would be better served if unnecessary subplots like those involving Coach Lazor (J. K. Simmons) were cut entirely.

Near the end of the movie, it seems that LeMarcus is, surprisingly, going to play in the game. Earlier in the film, a professor at LeMarcus’ college appears to have helped him and Emmett plan their boycott. On the day of the game, the professor goes to talk to both of them to tell them that he is leaving. He urges them not to give up on their boycott but to keep pushing for reform.

I feel this movie could have done a better job in how it advocated for reform for student-athletes. The movie tries unsuccessfully to look at the issue from both sides. If they had cut the drama involving the coach and focused solely on the protest, it would have made the film more impactful. As it is, this movie will almost certainly not have an impact on how the NCAA functions.

“National Champions” is now available to rent on Amazon Prime and Vudu.

Nick Ratliff is a Junior business management major. He enjoys playing volleyball, basketball and video games.

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