Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed in this review are solely those of Marlon Wallace and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of WBOC.
This fall, a series from Oscar-nominee Ava DuVernay called Colin in Black and White (2021) compared the way NFL players are chosen to the slave trade. People eschewed that comparison because NFL players’ do get a salary. However, as films like Oscar-winner Matthew A. Cherry’s The Last Fall (2012) point out, there are a lot of NFL players who aren’t paid the large salaries that one might think and plenty of NFL players wind up bankrupt. An incredible documentary called The Business of Amateurs (2016) about Bobby DeMars also opened my eyes to what is the essential issue in this film.
This film is an adaptation of the play by Adam Mervis. Mervis has written films in the past about NCAA sports and capitalism in narratives that play out over the course of three days. This film combines all of those things, as he tackles the fact that the NCAA makes tons of money off the free labor of its players. It’s exploitation in the least and slavery at its worst, which the protagonist invokes here.
Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk and Race) stars as LaMarcus James, the quarterback for the Missouri Wolves, a Division I football team that has made it to the championships. He’s scheduled to play that game at the Superdome in New Orleans on Monday, but, the Friday before that, LaMarcus and his best friend and fellow players decide to boycott the game, as they organize a protest against the NCAA in order to get the organization to treat its players as employees and not student-athletes. Basically, LaMarcus thinks that college players should get paid and not work for free or for an “education.” That’s not good enough.
The film then becomes how LaMarcus organizes his protest among the players and in the media. It also becomes how the coach and the executives in the NCAA work to get LaMarcus to stop the protest and play in the game. One of LaMarcus’ demands is for NCAA players to be able to organize. This makes the efforts of the executives akin to union busting. In fact, the entire film occurs all in hotel rooms or conference rooms. There isn’t a single moment of actual football. It’s similar in that way to High Flying Bird (2019), which is about a sports agent navigating a NBA lockout, which also underlines a kind of corporate exploitation of predominantly people of color. Yet, High Flying Bird doesn’t show much of any basketball being played.
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash and Spider-Man) co-stars as James Lazor, the coach of the Missouri Wolves. He’s a very wealthy man. Yes, he is also very well regarded as a coach, but, for him to be so wealthy, owning several large properties, is curious. He’s hyper-focused on his job to the detriment of his marriage to a wife who has a low opinion of the players. Coah Lazor perhaps doesn’t see what he’s doing as exploitation. As a former player himself, he sees what he’s doing as giving players an opportunity for glory.
He doesn’t see the grander scheme. He doesn’t see the wider view, which includes the fact that the NCAA and particularly its sport of football destroys more lives than it helps. Because the NCAA requires players to push themselves physically, it wrecks their bodies. The players end up needing long-term healthcare, which they often don’t get. That kind of demand also pulls their focus from their education, so a student-athlete ends up being more of an athlete than student, which can affect their job prospects in the future.
Uzo Aduba (In Treatment and Orange Is the New Black) also co-stars as Katherine Poe, outside counsel, a lawyer who is assisting Coach Lazor and the NCAA. While it might seem obvious that what LaMarcus is doing is honorable and justified, Katherine confronts him and really presents a powerful argument against him. It is a knockout of a moment from Aduba who proves that in addition to an Emmy, she deserves an Oscar.
Stephan James gives an incredible performance too. His character of LaMarcus is compared to both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. The latter comparison is particularly appropriate, given that Stephan James was in DuVernay’s Selma (2014), which was about King’s civil rights march. Here, LaMarcus isn’t fighting for civil rights but workers’ rights. It’s about how these NCAA players are de-valued for their work, which goes back to the idea of racism that de-values people of color.
In some ways, this film reminded me of Concussion (2015), which is the Will Smith film that was critical of football, specifically the NFL. That film was based on a true story that pushed for change or improvements to the sport. This film hopes for a similar thing. Shout-out to Alexander Ludwig (Bad Boys for Life and When the Game Stands Tall) who plays Emmett Sunday, the friend to LaMarcus who is by his side every step of the way during this protest. He’s charming and passion-filled at times. He’s one in a great supporting cast here, including Kristin Chenowith who plays the coach’s wife, Tim Blake Nelson who plays a gay NCAA executive and Timothy Olyphant as one of LaMarcus’ professors.
Rated R for language and sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 56 mins.