Sports broadcasting these days involves much more than just televising athletes in action. Between the panel shows, the highlight shows, the gambling tips, the recruiting reports, and the in-depth statistical breakdowns, the average fan is expected to know just as much about their favorite teams’ players as the coaching staff does. This may explain the recent rise in sports movies that spend more time in conference rooms than on the field: Moneyball, Draft Day, High Flying Bird, Concussion, etc. Debate, controversy, and pontification has become a big part of what the sports entertainment business is all about.
National Champions is another of these backstage sports dramas, set in the 48 hours before the fictional teams the Wolves and the Cougars are set to play in the college football championship game. The Wolves’ Heisman-Trophy-winning starting quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James)—likely the number one pick in the next NFL draft—puts out a statement calling on both his teammates and the opposing team to join him in boycotting the game, unless the NCAA immediately changes its rules to allow student-athletes to be be paid fairly for labor which brings in billions of dollars in revenue to their schools each year. Panic ensues among the people in charge of the game.
The question of compensation has been a hot-button issue in college sports for years—so much so that the Supreme Court weighed in on the matter this summer, ruling that athletes should be entitled to a lot more than what the NCAA has allowed. National Champions director Ric Roman Waugh (best-known for jittery Gerard Butler action pictures like Angel Has Fallen and Greenland) and screenwriter Adam Mervis (who previously wrote 21 Bridges and played high school football) cover a lot of the main arguments, pro and con, that have been put before the courts. Such as: the question of whether it’s fair for colleges to make money off a player’s likeness in perpetuity, and the concern that paying football and basketball stars will mean the end of scholarships for smaller sports like track and wrestling.
Waugh and Mervis lay these arguments out via a series of big speeches, mostly filmed in strangely dim hotel meeting spaces, overlooking the New Orleans Superdome. National Champions is based on a Mervis play, and the filmmakers haven’t done a lot to open it up for the screen. The visually drab locations, the muted Jonathan Sanford score, and the sparse plot—which primarily consists of high-powered NCAA officials threatening LeMarcus and him sticking to his guns—all grow tedious quickly.
The casting directors try to brute-force some excitement by throwing a bunch of stars at the material. J.K. Simmons plays the good-hearted coach who feels betrayed by a player he helped turn into a future millionaire. Kristin Chenoweth plays the coach’s frustrated, long-neglected wife, who intends to run away to Rome with an impassioned faculty member played by Timothy Olyphant. Lil Rel Howery is an assistant coach, Tim Blake Nelson is a rich Wolves booster, and Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, and Uzo Aduba all play “fixers” of a kind, willing to destroy LeMarcus’ reputation in order to bully him into playing. There are a lot of people here storming in and out of rooms to deliver angry monologues. But the only function they really serve is to make the story feel more complicated than it actually is—or needs to be.
Mervis appears to know this world’s wrinkles well. National Champions picks up a little insidery buzz with its cameos from TV sports journalists Steve Levy, Mike Greenberg, and Jemele Hill, as well as NFL quarterback Russell Wilson (also one of the movie’s producers). There are moments here and there that give some real insight into how a big-time moneymaking operation like the NCAA flushes out irritants—as in a scene where Aduba’s character announces her intention to leak some unflattering news about LeMarcus to a few influential columnists and then “let the aggregators run with it.”
But despite an outstanding cast, the characters never become more than mouthpieces for some very basic ideas. Even their backstories, such as they are, seem tailored to fit whatever point National Champions means to make about who gets paid in college football and who sacrifices their bodies for free. These are worthy discussions to have, to be sure. But this movie is all talk and no action. It’s a two-hour pregame show, with no game.