National Champions, in theaters Dec. 10, stars J.K. Simmons, Stephan James, Uzo Aduba and more

National Champions is shedding light on the high-stakes intrigue behind the scenes of college football.

In PEOPLE's exclusive first look at the star-studded sports drama, quarterback LeMarcus, played by Stephan James (If Beale Street Could Talk), takes a stand against the college football system and calls for student athletes to be paid.

He and his teammate's (Alexander Ludwig) boycott prompts their high-paid head coach (J.K. Simmons) — and others who stand to lose something amid the push for pay — to scramble for a solution.

"I've been a die-hard sports fan my entire life," James, 27, tells PEOPLE.

"A part of me still believes one day I'll go pro," he adds, "But the truth is, acting and sports are synonymous. It takes hard work and teamwork with everyone working feverishly towards one goal. I think that's part of what made this film so special to make."

Credit: Courtesy of STX Films

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Says Oscar winner Simmons, 66, "Being a big college football fan (Go Bucks! Go Griz!) was part of the attraction, for sure. Then when I read the script and talked to director [Ric Roman Waugh] I was hooked by the combination of passion, intelligence and even-handedness in the story."

The film also stars Emmy winner Uzo Aduba, Lil Rel Howery, Tim Blake Nelson, Andrew Bachelor, Jeffrey Donovan, David Koechner, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant. It was directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. The producers are Basil Iwanyk and Brendon Boyea of Thunder Road Films, and Greg Economou of Game1.

Left: Credit: Courtesy of STX Films
Center: Credit: Courtesy of STX Films
Right: Credit: Courtesy of STX Films

Aduba, 40, ran track in college, telling PEOPLE earlier this month about her impactful coaches during her time, husband-and-wife duo named Bruce and Lesley Lehane.

"Even though we were there as athletes, they really put into our spirits how to take the sport and apply it to becoming good, solid humans," said Aduba.

Credit: Courtesy of STX Films

"They loved their athletes, and not just because they loved the sport. It was bigger than that for them," the actress added. "They would talk about focusing on your own race and the idea of not concentrating on the distractions in lanes to your left or right. They showed me that you can lead with a nurturing hand and helped me recognize that we're all part of a larger sum. For the machine to work, respect and care need to be given to all parts, big and small. That is kindness."

National Champions is in theaters Dec. 10.