"Grambling's White Tiger," NBC's jockudrama about Jim Gregory, the first white athlete to play at Grambling University, is another morality play charting the triumph of good over evil played out against a sports backdrop. The gimmick in this one is reverse discrimination, and the standard cliche's are given the old mirror spin: A naive, decent white boy gets a football scholarship to a black college and ultimately overcomes racial stereotyping and discrimination through goodness and perseverance. Guess who's coming to play quarterback? Yes, it's Bruce Jenner! Mr. Wheaties himself, who proves over two hours tomorrow night at 9 on Channel 4 that he has all the expressive range of the Washington Monument.
If it weren't played so obviously it might have come across as intelligent drama. Unfortunately, instead of depth we often get cartoon characterization, and not even hip cartoons as in early episodes of "The White Shadow." Set in 1968 -- although this film makes it seem that the '60s as we know them hardly touched Grambling -- "Grambling's White Tiger" becomes a picture postcard of Grambling and its pioneering football coach, Eddie Robinson, played with dignity by Harry Belafonte. Through a series of superficial "socially relevant" scenes, culminating with Gregory's being awarded the game ball after the last game of the season and deciding to remain at Grambling rather than transferring to another college, Gregory moves from outcast to brother.
As Gregory, Jenner is such a squeaky-clean straight arrow that he makes you want to take showers during commercials just to keep up with him. (When one of his roommates spikes the punch at a dance, he delivers his line like Wally Cleaver: "Hey, we're in training.") But he does get two chances to talk on the telephone and thus recreate his inimitable Sports Phone commercial. Belafonte may not look like a football coach, but with his penetrating velvet frog voice he makes the most of the best lines in the film. Once, while giving a pre-game pep talk, he almost breaks into a chorus of "Day-O." LeVar Burton, as "Tank" Smith, the wide receiver who befriends Gregory, spends all his football time on the bench -- very reasonable since Burton (Tanks a lot for that nickname) is so small he'd get killed if he got into the game.
"Grambling's White Tiger" is a calculatedly inspirational movie. At its best it has the savvy of the recent urban McDonald's commercials. But at its worst, like junk food, it's bloatful.