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‘National Champions’ highlights growing cracks in the college football system

The concept of a title game boycott would work even better in the Final Four

There’s a movie out now that should scare the school colors right off the pooh-bahs in the top echelon of college sports: In National Champions, a star quarterback launches a boycott of the football title game over the fact that college athletes are not paid.

It’s a tantalizing story for those of us who believe that players deserve a share of the billions they generate. It’s a distant fantasy as Alabama and Georgia prepare to play the real national championship football game on Monday night. But it could become a real possibility in the right hands: basketball players in the NCAA tournament.

Yeah, I said it — college hoopers should think about boycotting the Final Four. That would be easier to pull off than in football, pose less risk to the players’ professional careers and send a powerful message about the hypocrisy of the label “student-athlete.” But before the powers that be cancel my company credit card, let’s talk about National Champions, which opened in theaters last month and is now streaming on Amazon Prime and Apple TV.

LeMarcus James is a Black quarterback who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft. (He’s played by Stephan James, who portrayed Jesse Owens in 2016’s Race and Rep. John Lewis in 2014’s Selma.) Several days before the title game, he says he won’t play until the NCAA establishes a trust fund for every Division I varsity athlete, disability pensions for injured players, and agrees to collectively bargain with a players’ union. Along with his best friend and teammate, a four-year starter who’s not going pro, LeMarcus gathers support from enough players to potentially cancel the game. Complications ensue when the NCAA pulls out the dirtiest of tricks to try to save itself, and the battle comes down to the wire.

LeMarcus knows he’ll make the NFL, whether or not he plays in his last college game. Skipping postseason games is already common for NFL-bound players — about 30 athletes sat out lesser bowl games this season to protect themselves from injury. Alabama and Georgia have more than a dozen players ranked in the top 100 NFL draft prospects, any number of whom could skip Monday’s game and still make it to pro ball.

LeMarcus James (Stephan James) is a Black quarterback who is projected to be the No. 1 pick in the next NFL draft in the film National Champions.

Scott Garfield/STX Films

The film does a terrific job of dramatizing not only the roiling debate about paying players, but the paternalism and control that is an ugly reality behind the “D-I” dream. LeMarcus points out that new rules allowing players to profit from their name, image and likeness “doesn’t cost them anything.” He preaches about the internships his teammates didn’t have time to experience, the dumbed-down classes they were steered into, and the injuries they were coerced into playing through.

Meanwhile, James Lazor, the white coach of LeMarcus’ team, keeps saying things like, “After everything I’ve done for you … He’s a kid with too much power … This is my football team. They will play for me.” Another coach tells players, “I own your future.”

Lazor, played by J.K. Simmons, rolls his eyes when LeMarcus talks about his coach’s massive salary and numerous homes. Lazor believes he loves LeMarcus. But Lazor doesn’t realize that his relationship with his meal ticket only exists on his terms, within the confines of a system that disproportionately benefits him.

Both in the movie and in real life, though, the regimented, conservative culture of football makes a boycott tough to execute. LeMarcus talks about dropping in the draft or even getting exiled to the Canadian Football League as a consequence of his protest. NFL franchises have no problem with players skipping bowl games to protect their bodies because it benefits the teams themselves. But if a player bucked the system on principle, teams could label him a problem and pass him over. There’s a reason National Champions uses Colin Kaepernick’s name as a verb.

Also, about half of the public doesn’t believe college athletes should be paid, and that percentage is higher among white people. Players who skip meaningless bowl games are already labeled as selfish or worse. Black athletes who boycotted championships would be at particular risk moving up to the pros.

College basketball, however, is different.

There are fewer players in a basketball game, so the absence of one or more stars would have more impact on the game. It would be easier to convince a whole team not to play. A lot of women would participate — activism in the women’s game is more bold and fierce than the men’s, and they have a whole additional set of inequities to protest.

When it comes to pro prospects, NBA draft status likely would not be at risk. Star players such as LeBron James already say that college athletes should be compensated. NBA activism is at an all-time high, so it’s doubtful a team would pass on a Cade Cunningham, Jalen Suggs or Evan Mobley if they stood up for what much of the league believes is right.

Michigan basketball coach Juwan Howard was acutely aware of his own exploitation while playing in college.

Nic Antaya/Getty Images

A coach like Alabama’s Nick Saban, a regular in the national title game, probably could crush a player boycott — or just let the kid walk and bring in another stud like backup quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, who was the offensive player of the game in the 2017 national championship win over Georgia. But would Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari tell his guys they had no right to protest, knowing that the next one-and-done was watching? Would Michigan’s Juwan Howard, who was acutely aware of his own exploitation while playing in college, stand in the way of progress?

But my favorite idea for a Final Four boycott is that the players could stage their own game — and make money off it, which would be a symbolic slam dunk for the cause.

Football games need a lot of equipment, resources and manpower. All you need to hoop is a court and a ball. How many fans would have paid $5 or $10 for a 2019 livestreamed #NotNCAAProperty game featuring players such as Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Ja Morant, Tyler Herro and Arike Ogunbowale? Throw in a dunk contest and that’s millions of dollars, easy.

College basketball has inched further toward a boycott than you might know. Georgetown coach John Thompson boycotted two games in 1989 over discriminatory academic rules. (The NCAA backed down.) Before he died at the end of 2020, he became the most prominent coach to say that it’s time for college athletes to be paid. Last season, Rutgers players discussed delaying their tournament game against Clemson as part of the #NotNCAAProperty protests.

As a hooper who hates to leave the YMCA without winning my last game, I can only imagine how hard it would be for a college player to walk away from the pinnacle of his young sporting life. The blowback would be immense from fans, alumni and media who don’t understand what it feels like to be a cog in a machine that makes millions for everyone but the athlete. Scholarships would be revoked, mud slung, jerseys burned.

But National Champions is another sign that the cracks in the NCAA’s system are getting wider by the year. One day, it will bust wide open.

Jesse Washington is a journalist and documentary filmmaker. He still gets buckets.