'National Champions' review: A college football revolution, off the field

J.K. Simmons tries to lead his team to a national championship, but a boycott is brewing in the locker room.

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic

Not a single down of football is played in "National Champions." 

Rather, this layered sports drama takes on the world of college football, the business of collegiate athletics and the entire system that is built up around Saturday afternoon games. To its credit, there are enough off-field fireworks that the football action is not really missed.

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in "National Champions."

It's three days before the college football championship and the Wolves are set to face off against the Cougars for the national title. (Don't worry where they're from, the teams are fictional.)

As the teams arrive in New Orleans for the big game, Wolves star quarterback LeMarcus James (Stephan James, "If Beale Street Could Talk") drops a bomb by leading a boycott against the game, demanding college athletes be paid and stop being used as pawns in the NCAA's chess game. He's joined by his fellow teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), and they both try to recruit other players to join their cause; Wolves coach James Lazor (Oscar winner J.K. Simmons) thinks as long as he can talk to LeMarcus, he can change his mind and get him to suit up for the game. 

And so begins a philosophical debate about college athletes, what they're owed and how much they're taken advantage of by the larger sports industrial complex. Based on Adam Mervis' book, "National Champions" is an up-to-the-minute depiction of the state of college sports, complete with arguments about image and likeness and references to COVID-19. It could be an episode of HBO's "Real Sports."  

If it was, that would take away from some of "National Champions'" soapier elements, including an affair between Coach Lazor's wife (Kristin Chenoweth) and a college professor (Timothy Olyphant), as well as the dastardly scheming of an NCAA official (a nonetheless powerful Uzo Aduba).

But the topics they're debating are real, and the arguments are valid. The NCAA makes billions of dollars a year off of college athletes, and the athletes themselves don't see a dime of it. Is that fair, and is a diploma enough of a compensation? It's a discussion that will continue to be had. "National Champions" is far from perfect, but it gives voice to a growing movement. It might make you think about Saturday afternoons a little differently. 



'National Champions'


Rated R: for language throughout and sexual references

Running time: 116 minutes

In theaters