Published May 18, 2020
You want to dismiss Phyllis George as mere eye candy who was put on football pregame shows because of her looks? Fine. You want to say that she didn’t add anything of substance to the telecasts? Go right ahead.
Everyone is entitled to an opinion—even if it’s wrong.
No matter what you think of George, the former beauty queen who passed away over the weekend at the ripe young age of 70, there’s one thing that you can’t take away from her: She was first. And, more importantly, she wasn’t the last. Far from it.
To dismiss George because she was a supposed fish out of water is to dismiss one Howard Cosell, whose background as a lawyer and print journalist was hardly the conventional prep for being tossed into the broadcast booth for Monday Night Football in 1970.
Yet both George and Cosell spawned copycat hires, and that’s not a bad thing.
You see, the question isn’t whether Phyllis George was one of the best in her field (she wasn’t); the question is, did she open up doors for others to follow her? The answer to that is a resounding YES.
George inspired young girls and women to pursue careers in sports broadcasting, and that makes her a trailblazer, according to longtime sports anchor and broadcaster Hannah Storm.
“Sometimes you have to see it to be it; you have to know something is a career option in order to aspire to it,” Storm told the New York Times. “Which means someone has to be first. That was Phyllis George — a true trailblazer.”
And George, unlike the boisterous and arrogant Cosell, didn’t pretend to be something she wasn’t. It was as plain as the nose on everyone’s face that George’s appeal was to male viewers, with a pretty face that broke up the not-so-pretty faces of Brent Musburger, Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder and Irv Cross (no offense, gentlemen) on the set of CBS Sports’ The NFL Today.
Yet she didn’t try to impress by cramming football knowledge into her skull. She didn’t go out of her way to try to sound like an expert. Besides, George figured that she knew just enough about football to get by.
“I’m from Texas,” she told People magazine in 1976. “And down there, you follow the Texas Longhorns and the Dallas Cowboys, or you don’t belong.”
But there was one value add that George unquestionably contributed to The NFL Today: The human interest story.
Before George’s arrival in the mid-1970s, pro football telecasts and pregame shows were meat and potatoes, and by meat and potatoes I mean unseasoned beef and soggy french fries. George added a nice appetizer to the meal.
Her interviews took us away from the gridiron and into the lives of the players we all cheered for (or rooted against) on Sundays. And they provided at least one iconic memory.
Talking to goody-two-shoes quarterback Roger Staubach, George and television sports got one of its most famous sound bites.
“I enjoy having sex just as much as Joe Namath,” Staubach said as George broke into hysterics. “I just like doing it with one girl, that’s all.”
Staubach’s candor (George interviewed Namath, too, and got Joe to blister the Jets and their woes) was a bi-product of interview subjects perhaps feeling more at ease with George asking the questions. Never underestimate the power of the softer nature of a female inquisitor.
“Often I used my gut instinct to ask the questions and get the answers I thought the audience wanted to hear,” George once explained. “Sometimes the interviewees said things that surprised even them.”
Were some of the bits with Phyllis George corny? Of course they were. Jogging with coach George Allen and getting “tackled” by linebacker Isaiah Robertson come to mind. But if you think she’s the only justly accused in that regard (including men), you’re sorely mistaken.
The brass at CBS Sports no doubt wagered that by bringing George onto the set, she’d not only attract a new bloc of male viewers, but also appeal to women who might want to see one of their gender among the guys, talking football. The execs were right, on both counts.
George, a former Miss America, also brought the feminine touch to horse racing telecasts, which were events perhaps more in keeping with her personality.
It didn’t hurt her popularity and name recognition that George’s two husbands were heavy hitters: Hollywood producer Robert Evans and politician John Y. Brown Jr., which made her the First Lady of Kentucky.
I was an adolescent when George showed up on my TV during pregame and halftime shows on Sundays. Yeah, I thought she was pretty. Yeah, I thought her presence (even at my young age) was mostly style over substance. But there was more substance in there that I thought—and the style part opened the doors for other women to follow. And bonus: they were females who, because of Phyllis George, chose broadcasting (especially sports) as a career option on purpose—not just because she was once Miss America.
“There’s a fine line between being sweet and innocent,” George once said, “and being a tough broad.”