In ‘National Champions,’ Uzo Aduba’s performance pulls from real-life experience

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What would happen if the best player in college football boycotted the College Football Playoff championship game?

That’s the question the movie “National Champions,” which releases Friday, dares to ask. The film features an ensemble cast that includes Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Jeffery Donvoan, Timothy Olyphant, Dave Koechner and Uzo Aduba. 

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Aduba, who won two Emmy awards for her role in “Orange is the New Black,” drew on her experiences as a track-and-field star at Boston University from 1999 to 2003. In “National Champions,” Aduba plays Katherine, an adviser to the College Football Playoff chairman who tries to squash the player’s boycott on the night before the national championship game. 

Aduba gives the best performance in the film. 

“I was able to borrow from that and understand her position as far as wanting to protect and support those sports that don’t have the big dollars or the schools that don’t have the big dollars,” Aduba told Sporting News. “The ones that benefit the athletes that come through the program academically.”

The movie addresses all the moving parts of big-time college football, including the multi-million dollar business side and proper compensation for the student-athletes involved. James plays star quarterback LeMarcus James, and Simmons plays coach James Lazor. Jeffrey Donovan plays a college football commissioner-type role. 

The scenario is an overnight dramatization that comes across as far-fetched, but the long-term point still stands. Aduba said the movie should resonate with both the casual and hardcore college football fan. 

“Enough points are drafted, whether it’s conversations about insurance, whether it’s highlighting the salaries of those within the system,” Aduba said. “I think those are things that will certainly be heard by the average football audience.” 

Courtesy of ‘National Champions’

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“National Champions” will not strike the same visceral chord as the 1993 film “The Program” (though the Wolves mascot is shared in both movies) because it deals with the big-picture issues of amateur athletics. Aduba, through her character, asks the million-dollar question. 

If the universities compensate for the major sports, how will the rest of the athletic programs survive? 

“I think the movie does a fair job of representing each voice,” Aduba said. “The movie could have thoughtful conversation. It doesn’t hold one entity singularly responsible. It just highlights all the parts and holes that exist that allow for certain things to exist.

“The fact that some of these doorways are opening is a good thing and should continue to be investigated and visited,” she said. “There is still room for more examination to better serve these athletes who are dedicating so much of their physical energy and time into the system that feels more reciprocal.” 

Aduba recalled her own student-athlete experience, which entailed pursuing a career as an athlete, a singer and an actress. That theme also is explored in “National Champions.” 

“The hardest thing was schedule management, particularly because the schedule was incredibly grueling because those two areas require your physical presence,” Aduba said. “To act, you have to be on the stage. To play, you have to be on the field. It’s not just you can write a paper and just send it off, and even that can be incredibly taxing for a college athlete.”

“National Champions” present a doomsday scenario of sorts, but it’s more about the prescient issues within the sport. It deals less with the transfer portal or Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) and more with the disparity between the revenue generated and what the student-athletes receive. 

That has been a heated debate for several years within intercollegiate athletics. “National Champions” attempts to address those questions about what would happen if there was a boycott. The answers, however, are still hard to come by. 

“I hope it will be received well,” Aduba said. “Our director put enough information and questions into the story that would spark at the very least to pause and consider all sides and voices that are represented in the film. The movie does a really good job of creating nuanced conversation.”



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