The debate over paying college athletes and the increasing power that football players are exerting for themselves will be the basis for an upcoming sports movie.

Titled National Champions, the film will star J.K. Simmons and Stephan James. James (If Beale Street Could Talk) will portray a star quarterback who leads a players strike days before the biggest game of the college football season in an effort to jumpstart compensation for student-athletes who help generate so much revenue for their schools.

Simmons’ role in the film hasn’t been revealed, but an actor of his stature (winning Academy Award for his performance in 2014’s Whiplash) will presumably play a key part in the story.

Will he play James’ football coach, either opposed to or supportive of college sports compensating his players? Or perhaps an administrator at the school where James plays? Could Simmons be an executive for college sports’ governing institution (presumably a fictionalized version of the NCAA) that wants to maintain the status quo?


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National Champions is being adapted from a stage play by Adam Mervis, who’s also writing the script for the film. Mervis wrote the script for 21 Bridges, in which James also starred alongside Simmons and Chadwick Boseman.

Ric Roman Waugh will direct the film, who seems like a curious choice for a sports movie after making large-scale action dramas such as Angel Has Fallen and Greenland. (Maybe he only makes action movies when Gerard Butler is starring in a lead role.) Waugh’s background in action could mean we see some thrilling football scenes in this film. But how much of the story will take place on the field?

Both Simmons and James have sports movie bona fides on their respective resumes.

Simmons played Detroit Tigers manager Frank Perry in 1999’s For Love of the Game. (On TV, he was also Matt “The Bat” Hardesty, former major league ballplayer and broadcaster on Brockmire.) James portrayed legendary track star Jesse Owens in 2016’s Race, which told the story of Owens winning four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. (He also previously played a high school football player in 2014’s When the Game Stands Tall.)

Filming for National Champions is set to begin shooting in New Orleans this May.


About Ian Casselberry

Ian is a writer, editor, and podcaster. You can find his work at Awful Announcing and The Comeback. He's written for Sports Illustrated, Yahoo Sports, MLive, Bleacher Report, and SB Nation.