‘National Champions’ shows us what a college athlete boycott might look like

Adam Mervis watched the all-time duel between Vince Young and Matt Leinart in the 2006 Rose Bowl from his couch in New York City with one thought running through his mind: What would happen if those two quarterbacks vowed not to play the game unless they got paid?

“Those fan bases would do anything to get them to play, including give them money,” said Mervis, an actor and screenwriter who played high school football growing up in Miami. “That idea stayed with me and stayed with me until I had to write it.”

Unbeknownst to Mervis, it wasn’t exactly an original idea. The notion of college athletes potentially protesting a championship football or Final Four basketball game has been around since at least 1991 when UNLV was rumored to be considering a boycott if it made the championship game (a loss to Duke in the semifinals made the point moot). The possibility still pops up now and then in various forms, prompting a series of questions about how the movement would take hold within a team and what the NCAA would do in reaction.

To this point, nobody’s tested the theory in real life.

But on the big screen, Mervis’ vision of how it would go down plays out in “National Champions,” an STX Entertainment film being released in theaters Friday.

For college football fans, particularly those who don’t need an explainer when words like “O’Bannon,” “Alston,” or “name, image and likeness,” come up, the plot will feel less like fiction and more like an inevitability.

As the movie opens, we meet LeMarcus James (Stephan James), the star quarterback for the Missouri Wolves who has already won the Heisman Trophy and is on the verge of becoming the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. We also meet his coach James Lazor (played by Academy Award winner J.K. Simmons), who is considered one of the best in the country but…

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