Enthusiastic, graceful, vivacious, humorous, magnetic are just a few words that could be used to describe Phyllis George, the former Miss America who became the first female sportscaster to work at a major TV network. George, born in Texas in 1949, was crowned Miss America in 1970. Afterward, many doors opened for her, but being a beauty queen also led to much unfair criticism.
George landed an interview in 1974 with the head of CBS Sports, Robert J. Wussler, who felt that a woman announcer may attract more female fans. He hired her on the spot. He once told USA Today, “In my gut, I thought Phyllis was pretty special. I thought there was a role for her, as somebody who could talk to guys who knew something about sports.”
George joined a team that included Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, and later Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder, on a pregame show called “The NFL Today.” One could say that every pregame show today is a derivative of this iconic program. After CBS hired her, George received a barrage of hate mail. She took it in stride,
“When you’re the first, you’re a pioneer,” George told USA Today in 1999. “I felt they didn’t know who Phyllis George was. They played me up as a former Miss America, a sex symbol. I can’t help how I look, but below the surface, I was a hard-working woman. If I hadn’t made that work, women eventually would have come into sportscasting, but it would have taken them longer.”
In her 2002 memoir, George wrote that a male friend told her sportscasting wouldn’t work because it was a man’s job. She proved him wrong and showed the world that a woman could have a career in sports. Today’s icons recognize her influence. ESPN’s Hannah Storm called her “the ultimate trailblazer” saying,
“People were uncomfortable with the idea of seeing a woman on TV talking about sports in a prominent role. But someone has to go first. I give her so much respect for truly her courage. She had to put herself out there. Phyllis George did something out of the norm. And I’m forever grateful for her leading the way.”
George’s start was rocky and she was unsure of her role. She demanded more from her producers and her hard work paid off. She found a groove and began to interview the top athletes of the day including Joe Namath and Roger Staubach. She had a warm personality and playful nature that resonated with those she interviewed and with the viewers.
Former President of CBS Sports, Neal Pilson, said hiring George was a “groundbreaking decision” that “changed the face of sports television. She had an openness and enthusiasm that made her a valuable contributor,” Pilson said. “She didn’t claim to know a tremendous amount about sports, but she knew about people.”
George was passionate about all the roles she took on, which created endless success. She started her own food company in the late ’80s, Chicken by George, that she sold to Hormel Foods. In 2003, she created Phyllis George Beauty, which sold through the HSN. She also co-authored five books. After marrying Kentucky Governor, Robert Evans, she once again came into the public domain as First Lady during his term. She “flourished in the limelight,” wrote former Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino in the forward to George’s Memoir.
On May 14, 2020, George died at 70 in her Lexington, KY home of complications due to a rare blood disorder. She was survived by her children, Lincoln Tyler George Brown and CNN White House correspondent Pamela Ashley Brown. George’s former colleague, Brent Musburger, summed up the feelings of so many coworkers and fans on Twitter.
“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.”
GoodSport salutes Phyllis George for lighting the way for women in sports broadcasting. It took courage to go first and we commend you for being a role model for the ages.