In an equitable world, there’s balance and fair play. There’s a general sense that a deal made between parties will be advantageous to both, making their lives enriched in some fashion. But when it comes to collegiate sports, the deals made are rarely equitable as the schools fill their coffers to propagate their athletics at the expense of, at best, other departments, and, at worst, the student athletes themselves. Countless fictional stories have been made about this in college football — Johnny Be Good (1988), Necessary Roughness (1991), Rudy (1993), The Program (1993) — but few really lay out just how bad it is for college footballers in regards to the impropriety going on. Necessary Roughness made a joke of it, whereas The Program showed off just how damaging it can be for the players to be in a system that treats the student athletes like cattle. Directed by Rick Roman Waugh (Greenland) and written by Adam Mervis (21 Bridges), National Champions is the rare football film which moves the conversation of abuse, neglect, and financial impropriety to the forefront and the actual game to the back. This drama went underseen in December 2021 when it released in theaters, but through a home release courtesy of Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, there’s a chance for the film to find a new life and the message to go out to a wider audience.
If you’re interested in learning about National Champions without spoiling the experience, I recommend checking out the initial theatrical review. Moving forward, there will be specific examination and discussion of the film, which may include spoilery details.
It’s championship game weekend in New Orleans and the city is humming with the energy that comes from two rival teams on the precipice of throwing down. As representatives of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) descend upon the town in anticipation of the game and the coaches of each team get glad-handed by supporters, a fight is coming that none anticipate and it begins off the field with renowned quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephen James) attempting to boycott the game. But it’s not just LeMarcus, it’s his fellow teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), and a series of televised interviews which gets the message out, with hours to go until the game starts. LeMarcus’s coach, James Lazor (J.K. Simmons) thinks he can get LeMarcus back on the field without issue, but the NCAA isn’t so sure so they bring in a fixer (Uzo Aduba’s Katherine Poe) to quell LeMarcus’s mission before it’s too late. Except where Lazor and the NCAA see a kid in over his head, they forget that LeMarcus is an intelligent individual with the popularity and charisma to change public opinion while he and Emmett work to bring more players from each team on board with them. So begins a race to kick-off with neither side budging and everything at stake.
June 2021, roughly six months before the release of National Champions, the Supreme Court made a decision allowing for changes within the NCAA system that could move toward paying athletes in more than just scholarships. To me, this is merely a step in the right direction of the issues that Mervis’s script gets at in the fictional tale at hand. Athletes make a deal when they apply for and accept a scholarship that they are being given room and board (the bare minimum) in exchange for services on their specific athletic team. The thing is that most schools place a focus on the athletic portion of the scholarship, forcing students to take dummy classes (which will not help them during post-grad) so as to lower their risk of their GPA dropping and to place the majority of their attention on practice before and after classes (leaving no time for extracurricular or a social life), pushing their bodies to the limit for the sake of the school’s glory without any safety net should their bodies give out. If a student athlete gets hurt during practice or a game and can’t continue, they lose their scholarship, and this typically means they’re out of school. Yes, it’s transactional, yes they know it going in, but where’s the protection for the students? The school gets the majority of the benefits without any real risk. Not only that, but then the schools can use the student athlete’s likeness to sell tickets, merchandise, and other school-related paraphernalia. You think the athlete with his face on the latest NCAA Football game gets a cut of the profits? Not even a little bit. This is why this issue matters, especially as this isn’t just a football issue, but extends to every other sport in which a scholarship is offered. Paying the athletes or offering some kind of reimbursement which can cover medical care and loss of wages feels like the minimum the majority of these schools can do.
Mervis’s script does a fantastic job of covering the complexity of the issue (and it is a complex one) so that even folks such as myself with no background on the sport or interest not only find themselves able to follow the bigger picture but on the edge of their seat as the narrative plays out. A different storyteller might’ve just stuck with LeMarcus, James is charismatic in the role and his scenes make it easy to believe he’s the great leader the media within the film imply he is, but in doing so we’d get left out of the other perspective, which is just as valuable. Don’t mistake that as saying that audiences should side with a massive money-machine like the NCAA, it’s that allowing the audience to see how Lazor views LeMarcus’s actions versus the NCAA leaders’ provides some exploration of the varying arguments against unionizing football. Or, at the very least, the ways in which allies *think* they’re being allies (Lazor) but are too consumed by preserving their own success, their legacy, to remember that his relationship with LeMarcus and others is personal but is treated like a business. Simmons really brings out a humanity to Lazor, enabling the audience to see a man unable to manage his own home or his team due to his struggles of preserving the power of the NCAA. It would be heartbreaking if it weren’t for the fact that Lazor makes more than most and doesn’t use that to the benefit of his team.
Strong though the film is, it really goes out of its way to connect a few dots and place characters where they’re needed versus where they might naturally be. Stuff like this is small and, in the grander scheme of the film is forgivable, but it is odd to see when everything else is so seamless. This is mostly in regard to philosophy instructor Elliot Schmidt (Timothy Olyphant) who comes to New Orleans to sleep with Bailey Lazor (Kristen Chenoweth), with whom he’s deeply in love. Except he’s actually there to support LeMarcus, having been the one to have given him a great deal of the information that he’s been sharing on television, not to mention the know how to avoid being found by Coach Lazor or the NCAA. The affair with Bailey does help illustrate just how much of football dominates Coach Lazor’s life that he doesn’t notice his wife is missing for extended periods, as well as create an opportunity for LeMarcus to get privileged information. But it’s an entire subplot that ultimately goes nowhere for either Elliott or Bailey, leaving a feeling where the audience wonders what the purpose was.
Unfortunately, another area of disappointment are the included bonus features. There are three — one focused on the film overall, one for sports trivia, and one focused on the music — each almost too brief to be informative. The longest at three minutes is “The Game” wherein the cast and crew discuss the film and what it means to them. If this were extended or replaced with a feature-length commentary, it would get really interesting but, as it is, it’s just enough to feel like a marketing tool for the film versus something that adds depth to feature. The shortest, “Sports Trivia,” is literally the cast being asked a variety of college ball questions and seeing who can get what. It’s cute, but adds nothing. The last featurette is “Behind the Music” with composer Jonathan Sanford (On Our Way). Over the brief two minutes, he shares a great deal about the design and composition of the score. Given how much the score adds to the dramatics elements of the film, having this portion extended would’ve been fantastic.
Despite the lackluster bonus features, National Champions remains a thrilling drama executed by an exceptional cast. There’s enough good in here that I’d personally develop a marathon of sports movies, placing it up with Draft Day (2014) or For the Love of the Game (1999), in that none require a degree in sports to grasp the human elements in conflict.
National Champions Special Features:
- The Game (3:02)
- Sports Trivia (1:01)
- Behind the Music (2:12)
Available on digital December 28th, 2021.
Available on Blu-ray and DVD March 8th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official National Champions website.