Photo: ‘National Champions’
Despite being someone who isn’t a football fan, there are plenty of football-related films that I have enjoyed. From comedies such as ‘Leatherheads’ and ‘The Replacements’ to dramas such as ‘Remember The Titans’ and ‘We Are Marshall’, there are numerous films revolving in the orbit of football while remaining entertaining for someone like me. The new film directed by Ric Roman Waugh ‘National Champions’ has almost no on-field action in it. It is actually about the absence of football.
When a quarterback calls for a player boycott three days before the lucrative national championship game, things turn to chaos for the NCAA. On December 10th, the collegiate sports drama had its theatrical release. The themes deal with a real debate that is taking place in the sports world right now. “Football fans, the film’s likely target audience, will be disappointed to find no actual football occurs in the movie. Still, with complex characters and fantastic performances, ‘National Champions’ offers a vital take on a developing issue,” reviewed Indie Wire.
At many universities, sports teams earn their respective schools millions of dollars every year. Most of the student-athletes are on scholarship, however, they do not profit off the money earned from their celebrity on and off-campus.
The money from their stardom goes to the school while they are restricted from marketing their own image. Selling jerseys, posters with athletes’ images, and ticket sales in the past did not profit the athlete in any way; only the school. These amateur athletes also weren’t allowed to make endorsement deals or participate in commercials. These restrictions led to illegal bribery in order to recruit certain players. It has been an ongoing topic of discussion considering how much institutions make off of certain players. The first major change to this rule occurred when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of student-athletes.
According to CNBC, “The Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA had violated antitrust rules and should pay student-athletes for education-related benefits, though it did not rule on broader compensation questions, and in the decision said legislation may be needed to address remaining issues.”
Following this decision, the NCAA’s board of directors officially suspended the rules prohibiting amateur athletes from selling the rights to their names, image, and likeness. As of July 1st, athletes could officially make money through traditional endorsements, personal appearances, and various other opportunities. “The new rules will allow athletes to profit by monetizing social media accounts, signing autographs, teaching camps or lessons, starting their own businesses, and participating in advertising campaigns, among many other potential ventures. Athletes will be allowed to sign with agents or other representatives to help them acquire endorsement deals,” according to ESPN.
NCAA president Mark Emmert said in a statement, “This is an important day for college athletes since they all are now able to take advantage of name, image, and likeness opportunities. With the variety of state laws adopted across the country, we will continue to work with Congress to develop a solution that will provide clarity on a national level.”
If this policy is successful, it would ultimately change the balance of power between athletes and their schools by allowing athletes to earn money off of their work. It also could potentially help build connections between communities and their colleges by having athletes promote locally owned businesses. Many of these athletes will not go professional, meaning that this is the peak of their athletic careers. “In 99.9 percent of cases, college is when the value of athletes’ brands happens to be the highest,” said Ayden Syal, co-creator of MOGL Corp., the first online marketplace to match college athletes with marketers to capitalize their new rights according to CNBC. This sets the stage for the newly released feature film and acts as an undercurrent throughout.
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Based on the play written by Adam Mervis, ‘National Champions’ centers on the issue now addressed with the Name, Image, and Likeness policy. It begins with a countdown; only 72 hours before the most important football game of the year. Only the football players have something else in mind.
Star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) announces that he won’t play in the national title game between the undefeated Wolves and the 13-1 Cougars unless the NCAA agrees to a list of demands about fair compensation. “He issues — initially through social media, then through carefully timed interviews — a call for his fellow Wolves and their opponents to boycott the championship game unless the NCAA agrees to start compensating players as university employees, not ‘amateur’ athletes,” reviewed Variety.
He is joined by his friend and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) who knows, like many others, his career will end after this game. Only a small percentage of players will ever move on to the NFL while universities profit from their sacrifices and the players suffer from long-term health ramifications. According to CNN, “The movie proves most effective examining the inequity in a system that has long relied on athletes’ free labor, offering the promise of professional paydays down the road and scholarships in the interim.”
The NCAA and its powerful connections spring into action in an attempt to save the most profitable event of the year. “This cabal of panicky donors and executives includes heavy hitters played by Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Donovan, and David Koechner. Silently observing in the background is Katherine Poe (Uzo Aduba), a steely fixer and crisis manager who’ll stop at nothing to subdue dissension in the ranks,” said Indie Wire.
James has also effectively thrown his coach (J.K. Simmons) into chaos, risking his first championship title as his marriage teeters on the edge. While he sympathizes with his quarterback’s cause, it’s not enough for him to join it. “A father figure with a short fuse and a penchant for profanity, it’s the type of role Simmons can play in his sleep, though even he can’t salvage an outlandishly unearned turn halfway through the film,” said the Washington Post of Simmon’s performance.
The driving factor in the movie is tackling the issue that is already addressed with the new policy (Tackling? Get it? Like football?). While it may not be the most pressing social issue, it has been a topic of debate for a long time and is worth the attempt to fictionalize.
The actors are all exceptional performers, and it’s not their lack of effort that makes the film feel flat. LeMarcus is a sympathetic protagonist which James plays with sincerity and quiet intensity. Simmons is wonderful, and as always, an incredibly versatile actor, and Uzo Aduba acts her heart out. I appreciated the fact that, as someone who couldn’t tell you a thing about football, it framed and debated the issue in a visual way. “The message is still worth contemplating, but lacking a better vehicle to convey it, feels more deserving of analysis on sports pages than the entertainment space. There’s obvious method behind the timing of the movie’s release, heading into college football’s bowl season and championship playoff in January” said CNN.
It did however feel like there were meandering plot lots and an unnecessary amount of twists. If you’re someone who has been passionate about this topic, or maybe you were/ are a student-athlete and this is a personal story, then perhaps you would have a different perspective than I do. But to me, it felt a little too long and a little too dramatic for the reality of a rule change that has already taken place.
Director: Ric Roman Waugh
Writer: Adam Mervis
Starring: J.K. Simmons, Stephan James, Kristin Chenoweth, Alexander Ludwig, Timothy Olyphant, Uzo Aduba, Tim Blake Nelson, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Lil Rel Howery
By Kylie Bolter
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