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Review: 'National Champions' shows us what a college athlete boycott might look like

USA TODAY SPORTS logo USA TODAY SPORTS 12/9/2021 Dan Wolken, USA TODAY
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Adam Mervis watched the all-time duel between Vince Young and Matt Leinart in the 2006 Rose Bowl from his couch in New York City with one thought running through his mind: What would happen if those two quarterbacks vowed not to play the game unless they got paid? 

“Those fan bases would do anything to get them to play, including give them money,” said Mervis, an actor and screenwriter who played high school football growing up in Miami. “That idea stayed with me and stayed with me until I had to write it.”

Unbeknownst to Mervis, it wasn’t exactly an original idea. The notion of college athletes potentially protesting a championship football or Final Four basketball game has been around since at least 1991 when UNLV was rumored to be considering a boycott if it made the championship game (a loss to Duke in the semifinals made the point moot). The possibility still pops up now and then in various forms, prompting a series of questions about how the movement would take hold within a team and what the NCAA would do in reaction. 

The official poster for "National Champions." © STX The official poster for "National Champions."

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To this point, nobody’s tested the theory in real life. 

But on the big screen, Mervis’ vision of how it would go down plays out in “National Champions,” an STX Entertainment film being released in theaters Friday. 

For college football fans, particularly those who don’t need an explainer when words like “O’Bannon,” “Alston,” or “name, image and likeness,” come up, the plot will feel less like fiction and more like an inevitability. 

As the movie opens, we meet LeMarcus James (Stephan James), the star quarterback for the Missouri Wolves who has already won the Heisman Trophy and is on the verge of becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. We also meet his coach James Lazor (played by Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons), who is considered one of the best in the country but still hasn’t won the big one. 

They’re in New Orleans preparing to play the national championship game in just a couple days when, unbeknownst to anyone but James and his teammate Emmett Sunday, they announce that James won’t play until a series of demands are met including compensation for college athletes and long-term health insurance.

The story follows James as he makes his case both to the media and to teammates, trying to convince them to join his strike. Lazor, meanwhile, tries to get a handle on the situation until he realizes his chance at a national championship is truly in peril. And, of course, the NCAA rides into town with a heavy hand in an attempt to coerce LeMarcus into backing down.

And as the story goes on and we learn more and more about LeMarcus’ background and his motivations for launching this movement when he’s on the cusp of becoming a multi-millionaire, Mervis’ construction of the characters deftly exposes so many of the conflicts afflicting college sports right now. 

It’s not that the system doesn’t benefit college athletes. It’s that the amounts of money involved have thrown everything so far out of balance that the status quo is no longer acceptable. In that sense, the most interesting character in the movie in some ways is Lazor, who does not come across as a Southern caricature but more of a modern coach who deeply cares for and supports his players but also believes that James is misguided in how he’s making his stand. 

“Lazor is just trying to win this game, and— just like you see these coaches right now justifying what they’re doing with hundreds of millions of dollars and leaving these kids (for other jobs) — they’ve got real justification for it and a deep, deep denial for lack of a better word,” Mervis said. “It’s a convenient denial but they’re in denial about what’s actually going on here. And by the way, 100,000 people roaring in Ann Arbor, Michigan last Saturday agree with them.” 

“To J.K. Simmons’ credit, he really wanted to find and really pushed (director Ric Roman Waugh) a lot to find moments where Lazor was not only right but looking out for LeMarcus. And I think that’s right. Lazor thinks, and he’s probably right, that he made LeMarcus into a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback. And here’s where it gets very complicated in looking at race and class, which is fascinating to think about. What does Lazor owe LeMarcus, and what does LeMarcus owe Lazor? It’s complicated.”

I found the movie to be entertaining, largely accurate in its portrayal of the characters around college sports and extremely relevant in an era when Congress is pushing the NCAA to reform, athletes’ rights are on the front burner and college coaching contracts are breaking the $10 million a year threshold. 

Mervis, who also wrote the 2019 action thriller “21 Bridges,” did not begin as a burn-it-down type of college sports fan but started to evolve in that direction when he went to college at Florida State in the late 1990s. With a couple of his former high school teammates playing for the Seminoles, Mervis had an up-close view at what their college experience was like and how playing big-time football at a school like Florida State was akin to a full-time job. 

“I started to find myself growing more and more disgusted with the money, the distance between what everyone around these guys were making and the lives these guys were living, which I knew intimately,” Mervis said. “I found myself having a hard time watching college sports at a certain point, and the money was just getting so absurd and the premise of the argument that they were student-athletes, that they went to class and all that. I knew these guys. I knew that life. At Florida State there was one class: It was called football, and everything was geared around it.”

After kicking the idea around for years, Mervis finally wrote the script for “National Champions” in 2018 but did it initially as a stage play. The idea didn’t get a ton of traction in the theater community, but during a meeting with Thunder Road Films, producers Basil Iwanyk and Brendon Boyea randomly asked him if he had written anything sports related. Shortly thereafter, the film was on its way to becoming a reality. 

Without giving away too much of the plot, what “National Champions” fundamentally gets right is the sense that changing the system is really, really hard. If any famous college athlete like LeMarcus James actually had the desire to boycott a national championship game, it would be met with almost unfathomable resistance and pressure, both externally and perhaps even among their peers. 

“Once I had a draft of the screenplay, I talked to a pro quarterback who had played in the national title game and he said he read the script and talked to me for an hour which was very nice,” Mervis said. “I was sort of pleasantly surprised that he was like, ‘I think you’re pretty close on here,’ but he said something to me that I knew but had forgotten. And it’s that these guys are 19-year old kids who have been playing football all their life and if they're in the national title game, they want to play, man. This is partially how college athletics gets these guys to do what they’re doing. They're kids who’ve been in the system. They want to win this thing and don't want to not play and deal with (everything that comes with it).”

The film does not offer up a lot of easy answers to that problem. Ultimately, it may be the only thing that prevents a college athlete uprising in the near future. Until then, at least, we can watch LeMarcus James give it a shot.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Review: 'National Champions' shows us what a college athlete boycott might look like

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