Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

Review: ‘The Scheme,’ starring Christian Dawkins, Steve Haney, Dan Wetzel and Rebecca Davis O’Brien

March 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“The Scheme” (2020) 

Directed by Pat Kondelis

Culture Representation: The true-crime documentary “The Scheme”—about a corruption scandal involving the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and an aspiring manager of basketball players—interviews a mix of African Americans and white people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Christian Dawkins, one of the men at the center of the scandal, says that he was the “fall guy” for widespread corruption in the NCAA and that he was unfairly entrapped by the FBI.

Culture Audience: “The Scheme” will appeal mostly to people who have an interest in true crime and sports scandals, but this documentary is openly sympathetic to Dawkins, the only person involved in the scandal who’s interviewed for the movie.

Christian Dawkins in “The Scheme” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If high-school basketball stars are paid by people who want them recruited to a college basketball team, is that corruption or is that common sense? In the very slanted documentary “The Scheme,” former basketball wheeler dealer Christian Dawkins says it’s common sense. The law takes the opposite stance, and it’s why Dawkins was busted in a 2017 FBI sting that led to two trials and Dawkins becoming a convicted felon.

“The Scheme,” directed by Pat Kondelis (who won a Sports Emmy for Showtime’s 2017 documentary “Disgraced”), doesn’t even try to be about the filmmakers doing any original investigative journalism. Instead, it’s mainly concerned with being the first TV interview that Dawkins has given since he was arrested in 2017 and later served time in prison for fraud and bribery charges.

Although the epilogue of “The Scheme” mentions that key figures in the wide-ranging NCAA scandal declined to be interviewed for the movieincluding others who were arrested; coaches who were implicated but not arrested; and officials from the FBI and NCAAthis documentary instead gives a wide berth to Dawkins’ side of the story. “The Scheme” also relies heavily on interviews with journalists who actually did the investigative work that’s used in the movie, but the filmmakers chose not to do their own further investigations.

Dawkins even says in the documentary, “I don’t even want to tell my side of the story as much as I want to tell the bigger story and my opinion.” And yet, “The Scheme” filmmakers don’t follow up on the widespread corruption claims that Dawkins brings up while being interviewed. This failure to follow up is the equivalent of being handed a ball in a sports game and dropping the ball.

Dawkins was 24 years old when he was arrested in the 2017 scandal, which involved an extensive FBI investigation and federal prosecution by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, since many of the transactions took place in New York City. By his own admission, Dawkins is cocky, because he has long considered himself to be a marketing-savvy entrepreneur who’s destined for greatness. And, as the documentary shows, he has a tendency to stretch the truth or lie if it will make him look good or make him money.

The beginning of the film goes over his upbringing and background to explain how Dawkins ended up serving the longest prison sentence (18 months) out of all of the people arrested in the scandal. “The Scheme” interviews Christian Dawkins’ parents Lou and Latricia Dawkins, seated on a couch together, and they confirm that the family’s life revolved around basketball, because Lou was a basketball coach at top-ranking Saginaw High School in their hometown of Saginaw, Michigan.

All three of the  Dawkins kids—Christian and his younger brother and sister—played basketball in school. Their father Lou Dawkins says in the documentary that basketball was the children’s choice of sport and they took the initiative to play basketball, and not because of pressure from him. The skeptical “rolling eyes” reaction of Lou’s wife Latricia puts some doubt on that perspective, and she says, “I don’t know if that’s all true, but I’ll go with it.”

What the parents do agree on is that Christian showed signs of being interested in business from an early age, when he was about 10 or 11. Instead of sports magazines, he would be more likely to read business magazines. Lou says about Christian’s basketball skills as a child: “He was good, but he was stubborn,” and that Christian often had a hard time listening to advice and rules that his father gave him. But his parents lovingly describe him as “intelligent.” And his mother Latricia says about Christian: “My child has always been different.”

According to Christian, one of the biggest influences in his life was the 2000 non-fiction book “Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth,” by Dan Wetzel and Don Yeager. (Wetzel, who covered the 2017 NCAA scandal for Yahoo Sports, is interviewed in the documentary.) Reading the book led to Christian starting a “basketball insider” website called Best of the Best Prep Basketball Scouting, which he started while he was in high school. The website charged $600 per person to get access to information about the best high-school basketball players in Michigan and other parts of the Midwest. Christian’s mother said she didn’t find out about this business until checks started arriving in the mail for Christian.

And showing his tendency to lie in order to make money, Christian admits in the documentary that he once ranked himself as a No. 1 basketball player on the website, even though he was an average basketball player. Christian’s attorney Steve Haney, who says he’s known Christian since Christian was about 10 or 11 years old, laughs when he remembers that Christian even lied about his height on the website, by claiming he was 6’2″, when he’s actually 5’10”. The documentary has archived pages from the website that actually show the rankings with the false 6’2″ claim.

But then tragedy struck the Dawkins family: Christian’s younger brother Dorian, who was a star basketball player in high school, died of an undetected heart condition when Dorian was 14. Christian says that Dorian is still the best friend he ever had. Dorian’s untimely death led Christian to start a charity basketball tournament with the American Heart Association, and the Saginaw hometown team switched its name from Team Pride to Dorian’s Pride. Christian also says he was responsible for getting Dorian’s Pride a hefty sponsorship deal with Under Armour. He claims that Dorian’s Pride was the only Midwest high-school team at the time to get a sponsorship with Under Armour.

Christian makes several other claims in the documentary, such as that he was the “general manager” of the Dorian’s Pride team when he was 16. He says that he “picked all the coaches and players, the tournaments we played in,” but there’s no sense that the filmmakers did any independent fact-checking for many of his claims, and they just took his word for it. All that Christian’s attorney Haney says about Christian’s role in Dorian’s Pride was that Christian “had an eye for talent and, more importantly, he worked.” Because of Christian’s accomplishments while still in high school, and because he was a better wheeler dealer than he was a basketball player, Christian says he decided not to go to college, so he convinced his parents that he didn’t need a college education.

According to Christian, his first real job out of high school was as “managing director of financial services” at a company he doesn’t name. The company name isn’t as important as what Christian claims that he accomplished while working there: He says he became the youngest person to sign basketball players who ended up being first-round picks for the NBA: Elfrid Payton and Rodney Hood. Again, there’s no independent verification that Christian was the official representative of these two players at the time. He could have recommended that they get signed to his company, but that doesn’t mean he was the company’s authorized person to sign and represent these two players.

Whatever his real or imagined responsibilities were, Christian’s prodigy-like success caught the eye of sports agent Andy Miller, who recruited Christian to work for him. Looking back on their working relationship, Christian says in the documentary: “We were like Whitney [Houston] and Bobby [Brown]: We shouldn’t have been together.”

In yet another example of Christian having a tendency to exaggerate or embellish the truth, he claims in the documentary that while he worked for Miller, he was an “agent or a junior agent.” But Christian’s own attorney contradicts this claim, by saying that Christian was just a “runner,” an industry term for a person who cultivates relationships with athletes but doesn’t have the authority to sign or represent them. (Miller was not interviewed for this movie.)

During his tenure working for Miller, Christian ran into his first major legal scandal, when he was accused of misappropriating funds. In the documentary, Christian calls the scandal “Ubergate” because he was accused of running up a $42,000 Uber bill while working for Miller. In the documentary, Christian admits that his expense accounts were abused, but he puts most of the blame on unnamed people whom he claims had access to the accounts. Christian wasn’t arrested or sued over the scandal, but he was fired and his reputation was severely tarnished.

It was around this time that Christian said that he met a man named Marty Blazer through a mutual acquaintance: a banker named Munish Sood. Christian told them that he wanted to start his own sports management company specializing in representing high-school basketball players who would be recruited by colleges, but Christian needed investment money.

The company was going to be based in Atlanta, but Christian frequently made trips to New York City to meet with potential investors. Christian called his management company Loyd Management Inc., because “loyd” was an acronym for “live out your dreams.” Knowing that Christian was looking for investors, Blazer (a shady character who turned out to be an informant for the FBI) introduced Christian to a man named Jeff D’Angelo, who was described as a wealthy guy who made his fortune in real-estate. Christian was also introduced to D’Angelo’s right-hand person Jill Bailey.

D’Angelo gave Christian hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash to bribe college basketball coaches and certain Adidas executives to recruit high-school basketball players, who would also be steered to Christian’s fledgling management company for representation. Christian didn’t like this idea because he says he wanted to pay basketball players directly, instead of adding an extra unpredictable set of people to the mix.

“Paying players is the cost of doing business,” Christian says. He also repeatedly mentions in the documentary that he thinks all sports players (including those in school) should be paid salaries for playing sports. (It’s currently illegal for players in U.S. non-professional basketball leagues to be paid salaries for playing basketball.) Christian says that he was initially very uncomfortable with this business model of paying coaches and other officials, but D’Angelo kept pressuring him to do it, and Christian eventually went along with it since D’Angelo was paying for all of it.

But, by his own admission, Christian said he got greedy and kept most of the payment money for himself and spent a lot of it on “entertainment” (including strip clubs) for himself and the coaches that he was supposed to be bribing. Unbeknownst to Christian until it was too late, D’Angelo and Bailey were FBI agents. (Those names were aliases.) And the reason why “Jeff D’Angelo” kept pushing hard for Christian to pay coaches was because NCAA coaches are considered public officials, and it’s a federal crime for them to accept bribes.

In the documentary, Christian and his attorney admit that although Christian took the money (they couldn’t deny it, since many of these transactions were caught on FBI surveillance video), he was not guilty of directly giving any of the money to the coaches and Adidas officials. It’s why Christian pleaded not guilty to the charges, and the case resulted in two trials for him: one involving fraud charges, and the other involving bribery charges. A great deal of the movie is about Christian giving his perspective of being “set up” by the FBI.

Throughout the documentary, Christian’s grandiosity and high opinion of himself are very apparent. He claims to know “everybody in basketball” and brags about being smart when it comes to business. But, for a guy who’s supposedly “smart,” he made a lot of dumb mistakes.

For starters, Christian admits that the sudden appearance of an angel investor (“Jeff D’Angelo”) who spared no expense (deals were done on a yacht and in lavish hotel suites) made him suspicious at first, but he didn’t do a thorough background check on D’Angelo. Christian says he thought about hiring a private investigator, but he decided not to do that because he asked a Drug Enforcement Agency contact (who’s not named in the documentary) to look into D’Angelo’s background, and the DEA contact  told Christian that D’Angelo was legitimate.

Another big mistake that Christian made was trusting Blazer, who had a long history of arrests and lawsuits (which were all public record), but Blazer mysteriously wasn’t in prison for his crimes. Any “street smart” person would immediately figure out that Blazer was probably avoiding prison time by being a confidential informant. And, as revealed by Christian’s two trials and journalists’ investigations, Blazer was indeed an informant for the FBI. But Christian, who repeatedly describes Blazer and “D’Angelo” as “idiots” and “stupid,” missed that big red flag. In the end, Blazer spent zero time in prison for his involvement in the scandal. So, who’s the stupid one?

And there was another red flag that Christian foolishly missed: The person calling himself “Jeff D’Angelo” (his real name still remains a secret) suddenly stopped doing business with Christian, and let his right-hand person “Jill Bailey” take over the transactions. The excuse was that “D’Angelo” had to go to Italy to visit his dying mother. But Christian didn’t try to find out if that story was true, because he said he didn’t really like “D’Angelo” anyway, and “Bailey” was easier to deal with on a business level.

In reality, as it came out during news investigations, “D’Angelo” had been removed from the case because he was allegedly stealing the FBI’s cash too. Haney says in the documentary that he tried to subpoena the mysterious “Jeff D’Angelo,” but the subpoena was denied. The documentary also mentions that it’s not known if “Jeff D’Angelo” is still working for the FBI. Even without the testimony of “Jeff D’Angelo,” the bottom line is that as long as the money kept flowing, Christian didn’t really care who was giving him the money. In the end, greed was Christian’s undoing.

“The Scheme” has a lot of re-enactments with Christian, as well as actual FBI surveillance and wiretaps. And the filmmakers are obviously sympathetic to Christian and his attorney Haney, given all the screen time that they have in the movie.

What’s missing from the documentary is any sense that the filmmakers cared about investigating the bigger picture that everyone interviewed in the documentary says exists—the NCAA’s widespread corruption, which includes the participation of major athletic-shoe companies (such as Nike, Adidas, and Under Armour) that pay millions to colleges for star athletes to wear their products. Unlike NBA players, the school players aren’t supposed to be paid to play basketball (a policy called “amateurism”), and the NCAA is a non-profit organization that gets massive tax breaks for the money it earns.

Christian was the one who spent the most time in prison for the scandal, while other people implicated in the scandal who are much higher up in the NCAA food chain did not even get arrested. Although the documentary is basically a platform for Christian and his attorney to complain about Christian’s prison sentence, the filmmakers don’t bother to ask why higher authorities were not held accountable in this scandal. And although the documentary includes statistics about how much money certain colleges and universities get from athletic-apparel companies, the filmmakers fail to detail or investigate how that money is moved around in possibly corrupt ways.

Christian even names some of the NCAA colleges and universities that he says are some of the worst offenders when it comes to misappropriating funds and bribing players to join their teams, yet the filmmakers don’t follow up on these claims. Christian also comes right out and says that it’s not uncommon for college coaches to use college basketball funds to hire hookers for high-school basketball players, as part of the recruiting process. Instead of uncovering anything new or looking into Christian’s claims about corruption and cover-ups, the documentary interviews journalists Rebecca Davis O’Brien (who covered the scandal for the Wall Street Journal) and Wetzel to rehash information that these journalists already covered for their media outlets.

“The Scheme” also doesn’t adequately explore the issue of racial inequalities in criminal justice. Christian frequently mentions in the movie that he was able to be “successful” because of his relationships with college-bound or NBA-bound basketball players and their families. (Toronto Raptors player Fred VanVleet is the only basketball player interviewed in the documentary, and he says he owes his career to Christian.) Because college-level and NBA-level basketball is a sport played by predominantly African Americans, Christian says that gave him an advantage to establish a type of racial rapport with players that agents and head coaches (who are predominantly white) do not have.

However, the filmmakers don’t ask Christian how his race could have been a disadvantage when he got caught in the FBI sting. “The Scheme” completely ignores the glaring fact that almost all of the people arrested in the FBI sting were people of color: Christian Dawkins; banker Sood; Emanuel “Book” Richardson (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Arizona); Lamont Evans (former assistant basketball coach at Oklahoma State University and the University of South Carolina); Tony Bland (former assistant basketball coach at the University of Southern California); and Merl Code, a former Adidas executive who was like a mentor to Christian. Jim Gatto (former Adidas executive) was the only white person arrested.

Meanwhile, the head basketball coaches at these universities (all of the head coaches are white) escaped arrest and in most cases got to keep their jobs. In the documentary, Christian claims that University of Arizona head basketball coach Sean Miller and Louisiana State University head basketball coach Will Wade blatantly lied to the media and the public about not being involved in illegal basketball deals. (Although Wade was suspended from his job, he was eventually re-instated.)

Christian says that Miller should be an “actor” for his performance at a press conference where Miller denied any involvement in the NCAA scandal. And the documentary includes Wade’s public denial of doing business with Christian by juxtaposing it with FBI wiretaps of Wade talking business with Christian. Christian and his attorney say that these head coaches who escaped arrest must have felt confident that they would be protected when they made their public denials.

Despite all this finger-pointing, the documentary does little to appear objective in trying to gather all of the facts. Instead, “The Scheme” is mostly concerned with letting Christian run the narrative. It’s clear that he did the interview to promote the fact that he’s trying to make a business comeback, but this time in the music industry—something that’s mentioned at the end of the film. (At least he’s smart enough to know that his sports career is over.)

Why the music industry? Because convicted felons aren’t as taboo there, says Christian. His attorney said that, in an example of Christian’s hustler mentality, while Christian was on trial, Christian secretly had meetings with people in the music industry to start his own record label.

And now that he’s out of prison, Christian has teamed up with Atlantic Records to fund and distribute a record label he’s founded called Chosen, even though he has no prior experience in the music industry. In the documentary, Christian doesn’t talk about any artists he’s signed to his record label, but he seems very happy with the undisclosed amount of money he’s gotten from Atlantic Records. Given his track record in handling funds, Atlantic might want to closely watch where that money is going.

In the end, “The Scheme” is kind of a reflection of the person whose perspective dominates the movie: There’s a lot of talk, but not a lot of new facts brought to the table.

HBO premiered “The Scheme” on March 31, 2020.

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