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'National Champions' review: Sports drama makes convincing argument against the NCAA

Courtesy of STX Films


It ain’t a secret the NCAA has been under intense scrutiny about collegiate athletes receiving compensation for their efforts on the field. The question Ric Roman Waugh’s “National Champions” asks is: why aren’t they? College athletics is a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that gives raises and massive contract buyouts/bonuses to coaches and university officials, but leaves players high and dry. The players that are, you know, luring spectators and fans on Saturday afternoons. Despite a few rough patches and iffy subplots, the cause and effect of “National Champions” tastefully pushes the needle forward on a timely topic worthy of debate.

Thus begins Waugh’s tale about projected number one draft pick LaMarcus James’ and his crusade against the NCAA’s unethical practices. Played by “If Beale Street Could Talk” standout Stephen James, LaMarcus uses his platform as the hottest quarterback in the game to boost the awareness around the NCAA’s shady dealings. With a potential $100 million NFL contract on the line, LaMarcus is refusing to suit up and play for his team in the forthcoming national championship, a $500 million cash cow in broadcasting rights and advertising, unless his demands of player compensation are met. He’s roped in some pals on the team, including Emmit (Alexander Ludwig) who was injured during a game and faces years of recovery.

The head coach, played by J.K. Simmons, hopes to have a dialogue with his star pupil in the hopes of reconciling their differences, but Adam Mervis timely screenplay is better than a quick resolution. “National Champions” might not be the most focused at times, often detouring from its primary objective and awkardly highlighting a love affair between the coach's wife (Kristen Chenoweth) and an economics professor (Timothy Olyphant). Other supporting players Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Tim Blake Nelson, Lil Rel Howery and a great Uzo Aduba play a variety of characters ranging from sniveling NCAA officials/lawyers to committee chairmen of the National Championship. None of them are ever given enough screen-time to make a dent (save for maybe Aduba) and “National Champions” soars when it keeps LaMarcus front and center.

For all its shortcomings, “National Champions” makes several valid points that’ll make you look at the NCAA a little bit differently. The teams and characters in the movie are fictional, but the stakes and real life consequences are firmly grounded in reality. When LaMarcus gives an impassioned speech to his fellow players about the why’s of his endeavor, it’s hard not to be moved or, at least, nod your head in agreement.

Grade: B

NATIONAL CHAMPIONS opens in theaters Friday, December 10th


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