Should college athletes get paid? That’s the million-dollar question that the new film National Champions explores and tries to answer. While the NCAA is now allowing student-athletes to profit off their name and likeness, there is still the matter of them being adequately compensated for putting on the line when they take the court or field in their respected sports. At the same time, coaches, boosters, and other individuals are making big dollars off their hard work.
In the film directed by Ric Roman Waugh and executive produced by NFL champion Russell Wilson, we follow a superstar athlete who picks a particular moment to make a stand for his fellow teammates. National Champions focuses on LeMarcus James (Stephan James). He orchestrates a player strike alongside his teammate Emmett Sunday (Alexander Ludwig) three days before the NCAA national championship game demanding the NCAA end its practice of unpaid labor and compensate all student-athletes fairly.
James and Sunday’s bold decision to stand up for themselves and their fellow student-athletes triggers a series of events. The NCAA and those with considerable stakes in the championship game scramble to fix the situation or risk losing billions and watch the NCAA’s structure crumble. To ensure that doesn’t happen, they enlist the help of a corporate “fixer,” Katherine Poe, played by three-time Emmy Award winner Uzo Aduba. Poe is willing to get her hands dirty and aims to break James will by destroying his public image slowly.
Cassius Life spoke with both James and Aduba about the film potentially putting a battery in the back of college athletes who might decide to follow in LeMarcus James’ footsteps. We also touched on if college athletes should get paid, a time when both actors passed on an opportunity for a righteous cause they believed in, and more in the interview below.
Cassius Life: This film goes there and will have people looking at the NCAA with an even more scrutinous eye. Do you think this film would put a battery in the back of probably some college athletes and possibly befriend LeMarcus James in real life?
Stephan James: Look, this film, I mean, it should be triggering, right? There’s a lot of things that happen in there, and especially for these athletes, it should be something they’re really be thinking about. And so I guess that would be my wish, is that with this film, that there’s a discussion that starts or that gets amplified because obviously, the discussion is already happening, that these players start to look at their teammates differently, start to look at their coaches differently, start to look at the institution differently, start to ask more questions, and really stand their ground about it because obviously, we’re fighting for a just cause.
Uzo Aduba: I don’t know. I hope that the film certainly engages people in the conversation. It’s alive right now, very much so alive, the discussion of student-athletes and how that entire system wants to move forward. I hope that it will spark discussion. I think that’s what art is meant to do, good art anyway, and I think it’s meant to challenge. And so, I hope those things will come to life. Whether it will ignite, I think that depends on the community.
And so I guess that would be my wish, is that with this film, that there’s a discussion that starts or that gets amplified because obviously, the discussion is already happening, that these players start to look at their teammates differently, start to look at their coaches differently, start to look at the institution differently, start to ask more questions, and really stand their ground about it because obviously, we’re fighting for a just cause.
CL: Now your character, Katherine Poe, walks a tight rope. Poe, like yourself, is a track and field athlete, so she has some skin in the game. And she works for the cabal, so she uses that to help her in an argument to get LeMarcus to play. So with that question being, where do you stand on the fact about athletes getting paid?
UA: Yeah, when I came into the film, I had a very singular idea of what needed to happen standing from the outside, and then getting to play Katherine and understanding and learning more about the system as it currently exists, the work of dismantling it, and then the questions that Katherine poses, quite frankly. She says at one point, “What happens to all the other sports, then, that are not these big football, that is not big basketball, so on and so forth? What happens to those people who are largely benefiting from the system?” So when I came out from the project on the other side, it gave me space to consider the conversation from a more rounded view and some of the nuance of the discussion that I don’t think previously I had paid attention to. And I think that is why, even more so, why it’s important to have that conversation now.
CL: Was there ever a moment in your lives where you passed on a golden opportunity for a more righteous cause?
So when I came out from the project on the other side, it gave me space to consider the conversation from a more rounded view and some of the nuance of the discussion that I don’t think previously I had paid attention to. And I think that is why, even more so, why it’s important to have that conversation now.
SJ: Yeah. I mean, totally. Definitely, even in this business, right in the entertainment business. Sometimes, you have opportunities that are afforded to you that for some people, maybe like, “Oh, it’s a really cool opportunity,” and if it doesn’t feel right for yourself, your true values, and the things you really stand by, then you may have to let it go, regardless of how much exposure, money, or anything else has to come with it. And so I certainly find myself in those dilemmas, too, for sure.
UA: Well, to say that I, myself, think it’s righteous, I guess… I don’t know. I have, yes, said no for reasons that I believe in, yes.
CL: Now we had to ask, there’s a funny scene in the movie where you and Emmett redo the classic Pulp Fiction scene, Ezekiel 25:17 verse. Can you talk about that?
SJ: Yeah. Man, I mean, look, it’s something that when I read in the script, I was like, “Man, how are we going to redo this moment? How is it going to work?” But it really just flowed. I don’t even think Alex and I rehearsed it or anything like that. I think we did it for the first time, and Ric, our director, was like, “Man, we should have shot it. You know, Alex is my guy. I’ve been knowing him for a very long time, and so I think there was just a lot of chemistry there that helped that moment.
National Champions is now playing in theaters.
Photos: Scott Garfield / Courtesy of STX Films