Honoring Phyllis George and the Women of Sports Broadcasting
The passing of Phyllis George took so many people by surprise because when you thought of the smiling, vivacious beauty queen, who was so much more, it was hard to imagine Phyllis as an ailing woman whose life had ended at the age of 70.
We remember the past so vividly but not the more recent times when she endured extensive surgery in her losing battle with leukemia.
Better to recall Phyllis George as Miss America in 1971, and four years later, joining premier the NFL Pre-Game Show, The NFL Today, which was the first of its kind, and still ranks as perhaps the best program of that genre of all-time.
Phyllis was the true pioneer of women in sports broadcasting. She was the first.
The NFL Today
It was the brainchild of a brilliant television producer, Bob Wussler, to add a woman’s perspective to a panel of three others who filled their roles in remarkable fashion.
The lead man was Brent Musburger arguably the best TV sports host ever. Irv Cross, who was an accomplished cornerback in the league lent his expertise as one who played the game. And Jimmy the Greek Snyder added the element of the point-spread, most times using innuendo, to get his views across. Even back then, Wussler was aware of how significant the betting aspect was to football and the NFL’s success.
The reasons why Phyllis George was a huge success to the formula was because she never tried to present herself as an “expert”. She would interview players and bring out the human element of the athletes.
Her talk with Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach has been revived countless times, but it’s worth going there again as we pay homage to Phyllis.
In addressing the strait-laced attitude and life of the QB, Staubach answered one of her questions comparing him to the wilder Joe Namath, Roger said, ” I like sex as much as anybody, I just prefer it with one girl”.
I began working at CBS during the time of The NFL Today’s glory days, so Phyllis George was a colleague.
I, like everybody who knew her, was impressed by her humility, authentic friendly style, and ease. Imagine, if you will, how stressful it had to be for her, regardless of her past beauty queen honors, to jump into a profession under the exclusive domination by men.
And we are learning how many young girls at the time, looked upon Phyllis George as a role-model (a term thrown around indiscriminately). Now, the sports broadcasting profession is more than well-represented by capable, talented women who have worked hard to establish themselves in studio work and more.
They are seen the most, as sideline reporters in all sports. They are reporters who interview sports figures before live games, and in increasing numbers, are making their mark as expert analysts and play-by-play announcers on the games themselves.
There are too many to cite, and omitting them would be a disservice.
But some deserve special discussion.
It’s no secret to most, that I was married to Lesley Visser, who was a pioneer in sportswriting with the Boston Globe, and then in broadcasting, first with CBS, later with ESPN, ABC, and back to CBS.
She began as a reporter during the time I was the lead NBA play-by-play announcer, and NFL broadcaster.
One day, during an NBA seminar at the CBS headquarters, I suggested to our lead producer Mike Burks, and our executive producer Ted Shaker, that Lesley might effectively take her strong journalistic skills to the NBA sideline. Pat O’Brien was a fixture on our lead group on the sideline, but there might be room to expand that role with other teams.
Lesley took it from there, and eventually, NFL Today reporting, the Olympics, Monday Night Football, and the Super Bowl, plus other major events. She became the first woman to be honored with the Pete Rozelle Radio-TV award by the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Doris Burke has become the premier woman TV analyst for the NBA on ESPN and ABC contests. Doris played college basketball at Providence College, finishing her career as the school’s leader in assists. She also became the first female to call a New York Knicks game on radio and television. Two years ago she became a co-honoree when she was selected to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame as the Curt Gowdy Media Award winner. When Doris Burke talks basketball on a telecast, you pay attention. She speaks with knowledge and authority. She is as good as anyone in that position.
Several years ago I was honored to be inducted into the WAER Hall of Fame at my alma mater, Syracuse University. WAER is the campus radio station, where many of the voices you would recognize got their start as students at SU. Also entering the WAER Hall of Fame was Beth Mowins, who has rapidly established herself as a first-rate play-by-play announcer on ESPN college football broadcasts. She has been in that role on Monday Night Football’s opening night games as well, and the sky’s the limit for Beth. The thought of a woman working as a play-by-play announcer on top level college and professional telecasts was unheard of not that many years ago.
But women are unquestionably taking the various roles of sports broadcasting seriously. They are studying, doing their homework, watching tape of other shows, and doing the same exact routines I did, when it was my dream to enter the profession and succeed.
Once upon a time, when Phyllis George was featured on The NFL Today, there were female viewers glued to their TV sets, probably saying, “why can’t I do that?”
Many of them have done precisely that, and there’s lots more on the way.
And, as they remember Phyllis George, they might now be saying, “thank you”.