Yesterday’s news: Lessons one can still learn on a college campus

Tom Hoffarth /

If you’ve got a few minutes, watch this clip from the sadly short-lived NBC series, “The Richard Pryor Show,” from 1977. In this skit, Pryor is the first U.S. Black president, holding a press conference, fielding questions from a new mix of folks now in the media corp.

We will circle back to this shortly. Lights please:

COMM 387: Sports and Social Change is a four-unit course offered at USC for an hour-and-a-half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. The focus: “Application of critical, sociological and rhetorical theories to sports events and sports media; examination of the role of sports in enacting social change.”

Sign me up.

There’s room for about 100 students in the old Annenberg School of Communication Building Room 204, and it was nearly full when I found my way in, per invitation by Dr. Dan Durbin, the director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society.

Julianna Kirschner is the class instructor, and I became part of a panel discussion with ESPN’s Jason Reid and filmmaker Marvin Towns Jr. to talk about issues of sports and social change, particularly race, from the perspective of media members who have documented it over the last 40-plus years.

Towns got into his unique relationship with Muhammad Ali and the impact the heavyweight champ had on so many levels back in the day. He encouraged the students to take their knowledge and talents and move to other parts of the country to help educate others on this subject.

Reid, the senior NFL writer for, has just come out with a new book, “Rise of the Black Quarterback: What It Means For America” (Andscape Books/Buena Vista, 282 pages, $26.99) and could talk about why Patrick Mahomes, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray are here today because of the foundation laid by James Harris, Randall Cunningham, Doug Williams decades ago.

He also addressed questions about the pros and cons of Black ownership in the NFL and the effect it might have moving forward. Reid, a ’93 USC grad, has been to the campus already this fall to discuss the book and its subject matter, as well as other important media shows and platforms.

What could I possibly add, as a 60-plus white journalist who grew up in L.A., graduated from USC in ’84 and tried to be a keen (and sometimes caustic) observer of how sports and culture intersected from decade to decade?

“You know,” I followed up, trying to make a connection, “Randall Cunningham had an older brother who went to USC, Sam ‘Bam’ Cunningham, who helped integrate college football in the South when the Trojans played Alabama back in the late ‘60s.”

Bam. Little movement from the student section.

“When I was covering college football, one of the interesting aspects of the 1988 season was how the two quarterbacks in L.A. were vying for a Heisman Trophy – the Trojans had Rodney Peete and UCLA had Troy Aikman. The way they were perceived nationally versus locally was interesting — here in L.A., a very progressive city, there wasn’t the buzzwords to describe Peete as ‘articulate’ or ‘athletic,’ or Aikman as ‘traditional’ and ‘cerebral.’”

Don’t see anyone on the laptop Goggling the names. Maybe they recognize the reference. Hard to tell.

“Have you ever heard of the movie ‘Brian’s Song?’” I asked, going to my sports media history reference material.

Maybe one student in the back nodded. He could have been texting his grandfather.

“Let’s try this: There was a movie in the early ’80s called ‘Grambling’s White Tiger.’ It was about how Jim Gregory was a white quarterback at the historically Black college back in the early ‘60s. Do you know who played the lead role? It has a Wikipedia page … and ”


“Bruce Jenner.”


“Have you heard of Caitlyn Jenner?”


“The Kardashians?”

Nervous paper shuffling.

When I was a journalism student on that campus back in the early ‘80s – the building housing all the journalism classes was actually on the other side of Heritage Hall south of the track and field facility, a half block away from the communication department, because that separation was justified – I had a fear of not knowing.

If a guest speaker came to address a class, we may have been encouraged to do homework. Find out why he/she was important, how could we take advantage of this opportunity to ask pertinent questions, exchange contact information.

In pre-Internet days, I likely overcompensated. I went to the library. bought the books they wrote at the student store, offered to meet them before class, etc… Bill Farr. David Halberstam … Look ’em up.

I’m not about to imply students we encounter on a college campus today aren’t proactive, engaged, inquisitive or thrust for historical reference.

It’s just so hard to tell.

Maybe it’s not fair, parachuting in, blathering on about things I’ve experienced, offering advice. I want this to be as educational for me as I hope it could be for them.

As part of this visit, to address this topic, I asked Durbin if we might show that clip of the Richard Pryor show – especially the reference he makes to James Harris, the NFL, changes that could be coming.

Durbin’s gentle push back: Know your audience. That’s not just far too nuanced. It’s a galaxy away in our time warped existence.

“I hate to be the one to say this (and don’t kill the messenger) but Richard Pryor is so far from the experience of these students I’m not sure they’d get the idea of the skit,” Durbin shot me a preemptive email before the class. “They were all born around 2004-5.  Painful as that is to say.  They’re corporate memory doesn’t reach before smartphones.”

(I’m not sure I’m supposed to reveal this conversation above, but … it’s the truth, and that wins out over any hurt feelings that a student may have in now reading this).

There’s a lot to unpack from that, but it’s the reality of trying to get messages across to another generation to another, about lessons we’ve learned, and they can hopefully learn from.

They may not give it a second thought about how the quarterbacks today at USC and UCLA – transfer sophomore Caleb Williams and fifth-year senior Dorian Thompson-Robinson – are far more the norm in the college and professional game than they were just a decade ago.

We can’t make the students care. But we can put it out there and hope something sticks. Let them sit with it. Hopefully, they can appreciate the time they’re in – as crazy and bass-ackwards as it may seem sometimes – and still see how sports can be an equalizer in society and a progressive force of nature.

Enough of the soap box – another obsolete reference. Time to get on social media and let our hundreds upon hundreds of followers know what we just did, and maybe some students will see how to at least spell our names correctly if they ever want to reach out for more ancient interaction.

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