Review: Fictional National Champions Asks Important Questions About a Real-Life Sports Debate

Not a bad week for J.K. Simmons. In addition to showing up as actor William Frawley (Fred, from “I Love Lucy”) in Being the Ricardos, he takes on an even more substantial role as fictional college football coach James Lazor in National Champions, the latest from director Ric Roman Waugh (Angel Has Fallen, Snitch, Greenland), about a group of college football players who rally around star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James) in threatening to not play until all student athletes are fairly compensated both during their time in school and after they graduate, when they tend to need the most medical coverage after getting beaten up for three or four years of playing for free. Although the specifics of the film (written by Adam Mervis) are fictional, the arguments have been around for years, and the filmmakers clearly are on the side of the players, many of whom are days away from playing the college football national championship game, giving the much-lauded Coach Lazor his first championship.

National Champions Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

Lazor is in the most interesting position of anyone. His players love him and want him to have this win under his belt, but they also know his annual salary and see him as one of the power-broker beneficiaries of this system, which includes the NCAA and the individual colleges and universities that rake in billions overall on the backs of players getting paid nothing beyond room, board and a free education.

The film plays like a spy thriller, with James and his best friend and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), whose medical issues will keep him from being drafted into the NFL, sneaking around the team’s New Orleans hotel preparing to drop a surprise announcement about their demands and possible strike. James and Sunday move from hotel rooftop to secret rooms to stay hidden from their coach, who might actually have the power to convince them to put off this strike for his sake. But the players are being quietly coached in ethics by their philosophy professor (Timothy Olyphant), who just happens to be having a not-so-secret affair with the coach’s wife (Kristin Chenoweth). Yes, there might be a bit too much plot for one movie in National Champions, but when you look past the more soap opera-ish nonsense, there’s a great story happening.

Not surprisingly, the aforementioned power brokers aren’t given as much backstory or personal details, with a couple of exceptions. Slipping on thousand-dollar suits are the likes of Jeffrey Donovan, Tim Blake Nelson, and David Koechner, all attempting to figure out how to deal with the situation and convincing each other why James and his growing number of followers won’t stop any games from happening. The most interesting among their ranks is one of the only visible women in the film, a sharp, sometimes vicious lawyer played by Uzo Aduba, who has some understanding of what it’s like to be under-appreciated in her chosen field. You want to dislike her because of the side she’s chosen, but the details that slip out about her life are fascinating and add dimension to a character, even if it’s her idea to start pulling out some deeply personal things about James and Sunday to get them to drop their boycott. Things get ugly, bonds are broken, but everyone seems to acknowledge that the system that holds college sports together is deeply broken (and is already being altered in the real world).

The football players feel like real players (and some of them are) and watching them interact is captivating. Naturally, Simmons is an MVP, balancing the best interests of his players with his crumbling personal life—not to mention, the perilous state of his legacy. The speech he gives to the team, practically begging those remaining to play because they still respect him, is something special and different from the usual pre-game pep talk we’re used to seeing. The struggle of the players here comes to an end more as a sputtering mess than a defiant victory, but that might be one of the most realistic things about National Champions. In the real world, those in power would take over these negotiations and micromanage the arrangements to such a degree that it would become almost meaningless. To be honest, outside of a few much-needed conversations, I’m not sure what was achieved in this struggle as shown here, and that’s part of the problem with the issue in the first place. This is a solid story that resonates with a real-world issue to which there is no obvious solution that doesn’t take away money from other deserving, non-sports playing students.

The film is now playing theatrically.

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Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine. He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.