National Champions is an interesting, if not ill-timed, feature movie released in 2021 based on the play of the same name by Adam Mervis. It’s a well written brief that encompasses all of the arguments for and against paying collegiate athletes.
What makes this ill-timed is that the relief valve of the NCAA’s NIL deal was enabled the same year the film came out. In fact, the NIL rules went into effect in January of 2021, while this film was released almost 11 months later in December of that year.
For those unfamiliar, NIL refers to Name, Image, and Likeness, specifically through marketing and promotion. Until the new rules took effect, collegiate athletes were not allowed to make money off their own name, image, or likeness. That’s not to say money never changed hands, but it was always under the table and very hush-hush. The NIL rules bring some of this out into the light and make it more legitimate and much more legal.
The actors were given a fairly strong script, because all of the arguments for, against, and about NIL and the capitalism and economy of college athletics, specifically football, are very well articulated. In fact, the only reason I would suggest this film to anyone is to understand the controversy surrounding it.
In that regard this film is a product of the time it was written, which I guess more reflects the play it was based on. It was only when doing the research for this review that I discovered it was based on a play. Even as a screenplay, it feels more like a traditional dramatic exercise, and the three big speeches that define this movie are so well done that everything else is like the anticipation of that argument.
The film, according to a short IMDb description, “follows [a] star quarterback who ignites a players strike hours before the biggest game of the year in order to fight for fair compensation, equality and respect for the student-athletes.”
Two years on, with respect to both the film and the NIL rules, the landscape of college football has not self-destructed under the money being made by the stars of Saturday’s gridiron. In fact, as of the drafting of this post, the first wave of college superstars have decisions to make about staying in college and continuing their NIL deals or jumping to the NFL. Before all of this, that decision was only ever about going to the NFL if making money was the end result.
So as a time capsule, what Adam Mervis has written is not worth completely writing off. If nothing else, it has an incredible cast including J.K. Simmons, Stephan James, Jeffrey Donovan, Timothy Olyphant, and a standout performance by Uzo Aduba.
It may not be for everyone, and it’s controversial nature may have passed it by, but it will remain a relevant case study for the arguments for and against the NIL rules before they were enacted.