David Greene (Brendan Fraser) is a working-class Jewish teenager from Scranton, Pennsylvania during the 1950s, who is given an unusual football scholarship to become the school's starting quarterback at an exclusive Massachusetts protestant prep school, St. Matthew's, or St. Matt's.
In this film about coming of age and prejudice, Greene's Jewish heritage is first insulted in a hometown bar and it is after this that his father tells him that he "can't fight his way through life like this" even if his Jewish background is insulted; this is his big chance to go to Harvard.
Greene is exposed to prejudice from his first day at his new school. His new football coach, Coach McDevitt, drives him onto the campus. His coach, awkwardly asks about any special "dietary" needs David might have, presumably because of his Jewish background and stresses to not to tell the other boys any more about himself than he has to. When he meets the "other big men on campus" -- Charlie Dillon (Matt Damon), Jack Connors (Cole Hauser), Rip Van Kelt (Randall Batinoff), and David's roommate Chris Reece (Chris O'Donnell)-- he becomes aware of their feelings towards Jews in a conversation about team follower McGivern's (Andrew Lowrey) new hi-fi he "Jewed down" from forty to thirty dollars.
Greene finds his faith tested when he attends Protestant chapel and when he must choose between going to temple for Rosh Hashanah as his father wishes and playing football. He copes with this second challenge by playing the game where he establishes himself as the team's leader and throws a long touchdown pass late in the 4th quarter to give St. Matt's a 13-7 win in the game, and later that night reciting Jewish prayers in the chapel in honor of Rosh Hashanah.
Beyond dealing with religious prejudice this film deals with social prejudices, abuse of power, and the concept of honor. Fairly early on in the film, it becomes clear that although they are gifted by the circumstances of birth, not all of Greene's classmates are gifted academically. McGivern struggles with French and it is in his struggle that we see what happens when one person abuses the power he or she has over another. McGivern is given a recitation of a passage that counts for a large portion of his final grade in Cleary's French class. Clearly nervous, McGivern stumbles over the translation several times and Cleary berates him (in French) repeatedly. McGivern is unable to complete the recitation and runs out of the classroom. Later he is found on the floor, having a nervous breakdown. In this section of the film there also a scene where Dillon makes a comment about Greene being a survivor and Dillon being forced to live up to the implications of being a Dillon. Dillon tells David he envies him because if David gets what he wants, he'll have deserved it -- while if he doesn't, he'll manage anyway. Dillon, on the other hand, is forced to live up to expectations. "If my name weren't Dillon, things would be different."
It is Dillon's character and struggles in history class that brings the concept of honor as well as the expression of full blown prejudice into the forefront. The root of Dillon's problems with Greene can be found on the football field, where Dillon feels that Greene plays a position that was meant for him, proves to be good at it, and therefore receives attention from both his classmates and Dillon's girlfriend, Sally Wheeler (Amy Locane). After a particularly spectacular struggle between Dillon and Greene on the football field in which Greene is forced to make Dillon look bad, Greene's religion is revealed. A St. Luke's alumnus needles a St. Matthew's alumnus about bringing a Jewish player in to break St. Matt's losing streak. Overhearing this, Dillon later confronts David about his heritage by telling a joke about Jews and Pat Boone, and informs the group David is a ringer that was brought in to win despite his Jewish heritage. A fight ensues between the two, broken up by Van Kelt and Chris. This incident occurs in the showers, with Dillon and Greene entirely bare naked. David finds himself ostracized by his teammates and friends. It is also during this reception that Dillon learns that his girlfriend is interested in Greene. David Greene from this point onward is constantly harassed by his classmates, led by Richard "McGoo" Collins (Anthony Rapp) and his bodyguard-like roommate Chesty Smith (Ben Affleck); only Reece and another unnamed student remain loyal to Greene... and they themselves are ostracized as well.
Religious prejudice extends to all areas of Greene's life and makes the social prejudices more obvious as well. When he attempts to console Connors who is accused of plagiarizing a French translation assignment, he is rebuffed. Sally refuses to speak to him when he appears unexpectedly at her swim team practice. He is then insulted by his former friends during a meal session where they harass him for providing slow service in the cafeteria, where as a poor student he has to work to help cover school expenses not covered by his scholarship. He goes back to his room that night to find a "Go Home Jew" sign above his bed with a swastika.
The climax of the film occurs when Dillon is caught cheating in History class. David suspects the cheating occurred but says nothing when he sees a crib sheet fall to the floor. The teacher, Mr. Geirasch (Michael Higgins), discovers the sheet on the floor after class. During the next class the teacher announces that someone cheated, and due to the school's honor code, the history class themselves must determine justice.
David confronts Dillon about the cheating, and Dillon tries to bribe David not to tell anyone. David, however, is determined to set things straight. During a meeting the next morning with the rest of class, Dillon protects himself by accusing David of cheating. After hours of debate, the majority of the class finds David cheated, either because he is Jewish (which they say is an example of the fact that he has a history of lying), or for fear that they will be ostracized for siding with him. David agrees to honor tradition and say he cheated to the headmaster Dr. Bartram (Peter Donat).
The next morning, David goes to the headmaster's office to confess, but his history teacher and Van Kelt are in the office and step into the situation. Van Kelt admits he saw Dillon cheat. David does state that he broke the honor code by not bringing up the fact he saw Dillon cheat (as did Van Kelt) but Bartram absolves them both on grounds that this is another evolution of the honor code and sufficient lessons have been learned. Dillon, however, is expelled from school.
Bartram then states that he wants to forget the whole thing ever happened, to which David replies that "You're never going to forget this ever happened. Every time you see me on campus, you'll remember that it happened. You used me for football. I'll use you to get into Harvard."
In the final scene, as David leaves the headmaster's office, he sees Dillon leaving the school. Dillon (being smarmy and anti-Semetic to the end) says that he will be accepted to Harvard anyway and that years later everybody will have forgotten about his cheating at school, while David will still just be a Jew. "And you'll still be a prick," David replies, and walks away.