One could say the movie “National Champions,” released through STX Films on Dec. 10, was ripped from the headlines. As collegiate athletes settle into the new normal of name, image and likeness and debates continue over paying student-athletes—most notably football players at Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) universities where football is a billion-dollar business—this film captures the heart of the matter.
Screenwriter Adam Mervis sets the stage that three days before a college football national championship game, star quarterback LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) and teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) ignite a players’ strike declaring they won’t compete until all student-athletes are fairly compensated. Hours before kickoff, the head coach and other power brokers race to protect or destroy the prevailing collegiate system.
“I was around college football at Florida State, where I went to school,” said Mervis. “I played bigtime high school football in Miami, where I grew up and a few of my friends went to Florida State and played. I was around it enough to be familiar with more than just the surface experience.”
In 2005, Mervis was watching an amazing bowl game that got him thinking. What would happen if the star players refused to play unless certain demands were met?
“I found myself getting more and more disgusted with college athletics and the disparity in money between everyone around these student-athletes and the athletes themselves,” said Mervis. “I knew the lives they were living and the money everyone around them was making off of them.”
In 2018, after his first big movie, “21 Bridges,” Mervis wrote a stage play of “National Champions.” A meeting with a production company looking to do a sports film led to Mervis showing them his play. A few weeks later, the production company said he should adapt it to a screenplay.
“The only way the system is going to change is if the players at the top say, ‘We’re not doing it’ in a national title setting where they have all the leverage at that moment,” said Mervis.
Mervis created the central character to be a quarterback, the best player in the nation, who will be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, and his best friend, who won’t play pro football and will return to his hometown with a battered body and no health insurance.
The movie was filmed earlier this year and planned to open as college football heads to the climax of its season. “The average person who doesn’t think about college sports…will begin to think about it,” Mervis said. “I hope for someone who has more advanced knowledge about college sports, they think some players are going to do this eventually.”