Phyllis George, Trailblazing Sportscaster, Is Dead at 70


Phyllis George, who achieved one level of fame as Miss America 1971 and another one four years later, when CBS hired her to join the otherwise all-male cast of “The NFL Today,” died on Thursday in Lexington, Ky. She was 70.

But with her beauty-queen background and her modest television résumé, she was criticized for lacking the traditional sportscaster credentials. She was not a former sportswriter, like Mr. Musburger, and she was obviously not a retired football player, like Mr. Cross.

She responded to her critics by saying that she knew enough about sports, especially football, to get by.

She was unquestionably a pioneer. To many young women who hoped to have careers in sportscasting, seeing her sharing the studio desk with Mr. Musburger, Mr. Cross and Mr. Snyder and discussing the day’s games was inspiring.

Ms. George was best known for her interviews with athletes. A noteworthy moment happened in 1975, when Roger Staubach, the Dallas Cowboys’ stoic quarterback, unexpectedly confessed to her: “I like sex as much as Joe Namath. I just like it with one person, my wife.”

Late that season, her first with “The NFL Today,” she recalled being worried that she had been chosen by CBS to play a token role.

“I told Brent I was no expert,” she told The Orlando Sentinel. “But every week, what you’ve got to understand is that I get more and more to do because my confidence is growing and their confidence in me is growing.”

Still, it was not easy being a woman in a male bastion years before increasing numbers of women gained wide respect at various networks.

“We talked recently about the ‘me too’ movement,” her daughter, Pamela Brown, senior White House correspondent for CNN, said in an interview. “She said, ‘Pam, I went through all of it’ — all the sexist comments and how during commercial breaks she’d have an idea and one of the guys would steal it as if it were his.”

She remained with “The NFL Today” for three seasons before being replaced during the 1978 season by Jayne Kennedy, another former beauty queen. The next year, Ms. George married John Y. Brown Jr., who had built the Kentucky Fried Chicken chain and was elected governor of Kentucky in 1979. She was the first lady of the state for four years.

Phyllis Ann George was born on June 25, 1949, in Denton, Texas. Her father, Robert, owned an oil distributorship. Her mother, Diantha Louise (Cogdell) George, was a homemaker. Ms. George attended the University of North Texas but did not graduate.

She took piano lessons for more than a decade, aspiring to a career as a classical pianist. That did not happen, but she played piano at the local and state pageants that culminated in her being crowned Miss America. For the talent portion of the competition, she played “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head.”

When Ms. George was announced as the pageant winner and began her runway walk, she nodded to the judges and her crown fell from her head.

Bob Wussler, the president of CBS Sports, said he wanted to hire a woman who would provide a human interest angle that male commentators did not.

“She’s a warm, attractive, very nice individual,” Mr. Wussler told The Sentinel. “She brings the average 25-year-old-lady-fan kind of aspect, which I think is important.”

After being replaced by Ms. Kennedy for two seasons, Ms. George returned to “The NFL Today” in 1980 and stayed until 1984. Early the next year, she replaced Diane Sawyer as an anchor of “The CBS Morning News” with Bill Kurtis. She was again criticized, this time for not having a journalism background. After eight months, she resigned.

Interviewed by The Kansas City Star in 1995, Ms. George recalled that despite the difficulties she faced at CBS Sports, she would have done it again. But, she said, she should not have done “The CBS Morning News.”

“They didn’t play to my strengths,” she said. “They didn’t play to anything I had. They just left me sitting there. To show up for eight months, as I did, was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”



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