‘National Champions’ is a sports drama film directed by Ric Roman Waugh and based on a play by Adam Mervis. The film focuses on twenty-one-year-old star quarterback LeMarcus James before his team is about to play in the college football national championship in New Orleans, USA. Just days before the game, James triggers a players’ strike, calling for certain amendments to the structure of college football and sports in general, causing a frenzy among organizers who fear a fallout with sponsors and a larger Pandora’s box getting opened.
The film opens with a realistic TV presentation of a build-up to the college football championship final, with the focus on the two quarterbacks from the competing teams, both of whom are young stars touted to be amongst the top picks in the NFL draft the following season. LeMarcus James is introduced, hiding away from the rest of his team in a different hotel with his best friend and teammate, Emmett Sunday, as they prepare to put into action a protest and strike against the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). It all begins with a tweet from James, which immediately makes team coach James Lazor look for the two, only to find them missing from their designated room.
Over the following hours, James tries to convince the other players, both teammates as well as opponents, to get together and boycott the game, while calling for private press meetings to put their demands across. Their fight is to ensure equal pay and compensation, as well as respect for every college-level player — innumerable student-athletes, injure themselves seriously for the sake of the sport and get paid next to nothing if they do not get picked to play in the higher division, the NFL. These student-athletes are allowed very little time for their education, as college football does huge business with billions of dollars earned through sponsorships and media coverage, all while making meagre income out of it. They are left with no quality life afterwards, having lost the years of education and not having been able to make it to the NFL either.
James and his compatriots demand to change this too, as they call for an abolishment of the “student-athlete” designation and want to unionize the system with every student who plays in the college league being treated as a worker and not merely as a student. Fearing that they might have to call off the grand sporting event, the NCAA gets involved quickly and hires an “outside counsel” to communicate between the Association, team coach James Lazor and LeMarcus. While the NCAA and its hired help try to project James’ call for a strike as a selfish cover-up, the players’ strike starts getting much attention and support from not just players in the junior leagues but also from big names in the NFL.
Being about an individual lashing out to stand for the rights and well-being of others, the strongest points of ‘National Champions’ are its characters and performances. Strong performances by Stephan James as the convinced and determined LeMarcus James and J.K. Simmons as the tough but almost stuck-in-the-middle coach James Lazor set this apart from the rest of the film. However, the letdown comes in the form of a shaky plot and an unconvincing narrative.
While James is determined in his war against the system, the exact reason for a superstar college QB (who is about to be the #1 pick in the NFL draft) to fight for thousands of athletes who are used up and thrown away by the system is majorly missing, and when presented, seems quite unconvincing and like a theoretical idea up-in-the-air. Similarly, James’ effort in trying to educate and turn the other players to his side looks superficial as the scenes just show him making speeches in hotel rooms. There is nothing great about the filmmaking either; the cinematic elements serve only the purpose of telling a story and nothing more.
However, the idea that ‘National Champions’ brings to the discussion is extremely valid and relevant in today’s times when the safety and well-being, physical as well as mental, of the countless directly involved in the sports industry is being questioned. In this era of sports production and distribution being one of the biggest forms of money-making, it is hard to argue that sports stars are sometimes mere pawns performing and entertaining for the world to watch.
Also, while there is no mention at all of it in the film, it does indirectly raise the even more relevant question of whether sportspeople just stick to sports. This is a totally flawed argument used all over the world to serve personal political agendas. The character of LeMarcus James and his actions might remind one of the countless athletes who have been criticized in a more direct but similar manner over the last few years—Bubba Wallace and Lewis Hamilton in motorsports, countless NBA stars, Marcus Rashford and Megan Rapinoe in football, only to name a few—with the childishly arrogant statement: “Sports stars should stick to sports”.
Despite having the potential to be a film of much more depth, the faltering narrative, and an overall lack of ingenuity, ‘National Champions’ promises but doesn’t deliver. On the level of ideas, too, it seems lazy, trying to replace the American dream (which it somewhat criticizes) with only a newer version of the American dream with more promises and hope than results. With its performances, though, it might be a good watch for followers of sports or drama, but with nothing much to take away.
National Champions is a 2021 Drama film directed by Ric Roman Waugh.