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A Pioneer to Women in the Sports Industry: The Life of Phyllis George


Courtesy of Suzanne Vladmis/Associated Press


Today, when you turn on the TV to watch the NFL, dozens of female sports commentators, reporters, photographers, media personnel, and analysts are shown putting in the effort to make the game what it is: unforgettable. However, it wasn't that long ago that women in sports media weren't common. The familiar story of sexism and misogyny that comes with females entering a male-dominated industry sounded across television studios. Phyllis George aimed to change that.


Phyllis George was born on June 25, 1949, in the then-small town of Denton, Texas. Growing up, her parents were hard-working Methodists. She watched the Miss America pageant on television with her mother yearly because, as she told the University of Texas in 2018, "it was the biggest thing on television."


George first rose to prominence when she placed second in the Miss Texas pageant in 1969. She wanted to stop competing after that, but the Miss Dallas organization kept wanting her to run, and she finally agreed under the possibility of scholarship money. The following year, in 1970, she not only became Miss Texas but also Miss America. 



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After serving her year as Miss America, she went to New York, hoping to land a job in broadcasting. As she made her rounds meeting people, she met two producers, Tommy O'Neill and Bob Stenner. This connection would prove to be very important later on.


Her first on-air job was when the Miss America pageant organization asked her to co-host the pageant. In 1974, Allen Funt hired her as co-host for the show Candid Camera in New York. The job was fun, but she didn't like being second to Funt. 


Finally, another opportunity arose. After some leadership changes at CBS, O'Neill and Stenner, whom George had met a few years earlier, convinced the company president, Bob Wussler, to offer her a 13-week contract with CBS Sports, and if things worked out, the contract would become permanent.


"I accepted Bob Wussler's offer," George said, "partly because I needed a job–always a good incentive–and partly because something inside told me I could do it."


For one of her first assignments, she was scheduled to interview the Boston Celtics star Dave Cowens, who didn't like the public spotlight and only agreed to the interview because his public relations manager said it would be a good idea. Instead of the typical questions that Cowens was used to, George asked about his feelings toward the game, which got to his heart. The player gradually started warming up to George, and when the interview aired, it received substantial positive feedback. 


Sports broadcasting Hall of Famer and broadcaster Lesley Visser said about George, "Phyllis didn't do stories about the game. She did stories about the people, and she was as good as anybody who has ever done it. Players warmed up to her."


Her 13-week tryout turned into a three-year contract, and within a year, she was on the cover of People magazine. 


She joined Brent Musburger and Irv Cross on NFL Today; Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder was later added to the show.



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Following her death in 2020, Musburger tweeted, "Phyllis George was special. Her smile lit up millions of homes for the NFL Today. Phyllis didn't receive nearly enough credit for opening the sports broadcasting door for the dozens of talented women who took her lead and soared."


The NFL Today show aired three times, live, on Sunday afternoon–one at 12:30 p.m. ET for the East, one at 1:30 p.m. ET for the Midwest, and another at 2:30 p.m. ET for the West Coast. 


She spent three seasons with the NFL Today, returning in 1980 and leaving in 1983. In addition to covering football, she also covered horse racing and hosted the entertainment show "People."


She was thrust into the world of politics when her then-husband John Y. Brown Jr. decided to run for Kentucky governor just ten days after they got married. It was said that her smile and charm won him the position in 1979 and allowed him to serve until the end of his term in 1983. However, the couple divorced in 1998.


In 1985, after her four years as Kentucky's first lady, she co-hosted the "CBS Morning News" with Bill Kurtis. This position disappointed her, though, as it lasted only eight months. She took about ten years off to raise her and Brown's two children, Lincoln and Pamela. After her stint off, she came back to television to host shopping shows and conduct interviews.

 

She once said that her favorite place on earth was "Kentucky in the fall," and so she moved back there in the years before her death, settling in Lexington, where her ex-husband and son live.


George died at the Albert B. Chandler Hospital in Lexington on May 14, 2020. The respected broadcaster died of complications caused by a rare blood cancer, polycythemia vera; she was seventy years old.


"The CBS Sports family is deeply saddened by the passing of Phyllis George, an icon in the sports broadcasting industry who contributed greatly to the rich history and tradition of CBS Sports," said the chair of CBS Sports, Sean McManus. "Phyllis was not only a key member of a show that remains the gold standard of NFL pregame shows, the NFL Today with Brent, Irv, and 'The Greek,' but also a pioneer for all women in broadcasting."



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George lived a life of color and adventure; she never backed down from what she believed in. She demonstrated what it means to interview not only someone as a whole but also get to their heart, and she continuously won the nation with her witty comments and bright smile. The smart, talented, and beautiful Phyllis George paved the way for all women in the sports industry, showing us that we, too, can have a spot in the broadcasting booth. 




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