National Champions

The gridiron. Where men come to compete for the ultimate supremacy; a modern duel of titans where one false move can cost you the competition. Or even a championship. Skill and strategy rue the day. No matter how good you think you are, there has never been a better test of mettle than on that gridiron on a Saturday afternoon; this is what NCAA A1 college football means to the legions of fans and alumni supporters of their favorite teams.

It means putting on a football game for the NCAA, keeping contracts and sponsorships in place. It’s a business. It also means that the students who perform for the crowds and TV viewers aren’t treated as employees of the NCAA with the protections afforded said employees – they are disposable. The clashing of these titans is the divide between players and the association, the crux of Ric Roman Waugh’s “National Champions” in theaters on Friday.

Based on Adam Mervis’ play of the same name, Waugh explores the haves and have-nots in collegiate football athletics on the eve of a championship bowl game. Stephan James’ star quarterback, LeMarcus James, is geared up to be ranked number one in the next NFL draft. A decorated player with a winning attitude, the pressure is on to deliver the one win that has eluded J. K. Simmons‘ Coach James Lazor – a championship win.

Together with Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig), LeMarcus plans to disrupt the big game to reveal something far more sinister, beginning a series of strategic maneuvers of corporate brinksmanship – that of collective bargaining for the athletes.

While Mervis’ screenplay and Waugh’s direction are steady and even, the subtleties of the plays, James makes drive our attention. For every move James makes, the comfy suits from the NCAA create a countermove akin to chess moves – how quickly can you checkmate your opponent? Both sides have studied the tapes and know the weaknesses, exploiting the defenses and offenses.

Simmons is solid as Lazor, a driven man who can’t see past the bridge of his nose to know when his wife, Bailey (Kristin Chenoweth), is cheating on him. Similarly, Tim Blake Nelson’s Rodger referees the entire event, trying to get an order. Nelson is a hoot, trying to gain advantages where he can. David Koechner’s personality is perfection as Everly, one of the suits. Jeffrey Donovan’s Mike Titus will win at any cost, and while he’s not the wildcard, Titus has enough smarts to counteract, thanks to Uzo Aduba’s Katherine, the true wildcard.

“National Champions” mirrors real-life efforts to get NCAA athletes treated as employees, not student-athletes. Using a national championship game to engender sympathy strengthens both sides’ efforts. It also deflates the overall concept of the story because everyone is already in the spotlight. Sure, the pressure is on to perform, but when you have all your hold cards in one pocket, the strategy becomes in knowing when to use them, and that’s where Katherine comes in.

Aduba’s performance is quietly observant, knowing when to strike a blow and when to strike a bargain. My helmet’s off to Waugh and Mervis for holding back some of their best plays until we least expect them, balancing out the other, innocuous situations presented in the story, though they do lead us to those points.

There is a real gravitas in James’ performance, in the character’s beliefs, and he sells them, honesty, integrity, selflessness. In terms of strategy, the cast drives the ball home in a character-driven, sports-themed story; the only question we’re left with is, will all these efforts result in a field goal or a touchdown.

You’ll have to give up your Saturday game for a trip to the theater to see who becomes the “National Champions.”