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‘The right person to break that ceiling’: New biography honors legacy of sportscaster Phyllis George

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Via Wikimedia Commons
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(CC BY-SA 2.0)
Phyllis George debuted on "The NFL Today" in 1975, during a time when female sports broadcasters were a rarity.

Imagine this: It’s 1975. You’re a longtime football fan, and for all of your life, sports commentators have been men. Then you tune in to “The NFL Today” one day and hear the voice of a young woman discussing football alongside her male cohosts.

That woman’s name was Phyllis George, and she made her debut during a time when female sports broadcasters were a rarity. Her stint in sports newscasting shattered glass ceilings for women in sports television everywhere. Born in Denton, George had a long and varied career outside of sports, ranging from her year-long tenure as Miss America in 1971 to her term as the first lady of Kentucky, before she died in 2020.

To learn more about George’s career and legacy, the Texas Standard spoke with Paul Volponi and Lenny Shulman, co-authors of “Phyllis George: Shattering the Ceiling,” a biography that was released earlier this year. The authors shared some of the reasons why they were drawn to the story and the ways they believed George left her mark on sports broadcasting. Listen to the story above or read the transcript below.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

Texas Standard: Tell us about why you wanted to write about Phyllis George. What was it that inspired the idea for the book?

Paul Volponi: You know, I always knew she was Miss America, but I was a little young then, and I hadn’t really understood that the women’s movement kind of despised her as Miss America. And then, several years later, when she broke this glass ceiling, she went from being public enemy number one to that movement to their absolute heroine.

Lenny, I guess it’s both, from the author’s perspective, something of a blessing and a curse to be writing about someone with the stature and the name recognition of a Phyllis George. Was there anything you learned about her while you were working on this book – something that might have taken you by surprise?

Lenny Shulman: Well, quite a lot. We got very fortunate in being able to locate dozens of people whose lives were touched by Phyllis, either as a coworker or somebody who just met her along the road, or friends of hers. It was such a joy speaking to everyone, from her childhood friends on up to her adult friends, who singularly pointed to her graciousness and what a lovely friend and great person she was.

There was a certain stigma as she entered the sports broadcasting realm because, well, she was perceived as a former beauty queen. She didn’t have a whole lot of formal training and broadcast experience. What was that like for her, from what you’ve been able to determine? I mean, what kept her coming back and kept her building there?

PV: Yeah, I think you’ve really hit on something. We were able to sit with her long-time producer, Louis Schmidt, who told us that, early on in her career, people did treat her like a joke at the station. By the time she came to Louis Schmidt, she seemed to be on her last legs there at “The NFL Today,” and they hit it off and produced just a number of incredible pieces and interviews that still stand up today, from Joe Namath running in and running out and them having to edit it perfectly, to Roger Staubach saying, “Hey, I like sex just as much as Joe Namath.”

Then she went through that a second time when she left sportscasting and took Diane Sawyer’s place on the CBS Morning News. The people in the news bureau there didn’t like her at all. She came in making $1,000,000 a year as a newbie, having never done hard news, and they were all lined up against her. So she went through it twice.

You know, we often sort of throw around this idea of someone breaking the glass ceiling, but I’m curious – if you look at it, right around the same time Phyllis George was having a trajectory, you did start to see more women taking prominent roles on TV broadcast news.

LS: It was a profound difference, and she was at the forefront of it. I like to liken it somewhat to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier. I mean, somebody has to take all the slings and arrows, and to the gender side of that, Phyllis George took it. She took criticisms about her weight – just things that never would have been thrown at a man – and she did it with the same grace and the same aptitude that Jackie Robinson did. You really needed the right person to be there to open the door and break that ceiling, and it’s a profound difference. CBS was getting hate mail because they hired her to do football, and now you can’t turn on a sports program without a female sideline reporter, or analyst, or color person, or play-by-play person.

Paul, I want to hone in on something else that we’ve talked a little bit about here, and that’s the way that the people she was reporting [and] covering in sport didn’t take her seriously, and the rampant sexism that she had to overcome on top of the fact that she had that prominent role on the screen.

PV: It was amazing. We even have something that’s never been disclosed before: As she was being shot for a B-roll, she had interviewed somebody. Her and that athlete were simply walking across the field so the cameras could get a shot of them and use it in the segment. That’s when that famous athlete turned to her and propositioned her there on the field, and everyone in the control room heard it.

I think the fact that we now know that is really tied into the fact that she had already passed. When we started to write this book, we had never met her personally, though we know plenty of people who knew her. Because she was gone already, I think a lot of people we interviewed who had done so many things with her didn’t feel like they had to keep anything secret. They felt like they could tell us more about the human qualities of Phyllis. And I think because she was gone, we have the type of book that now gives you the real picture of what someone went through.

If I were to go out on the sidewalk, even here in her native Texas, and say the name Phyllis George, I’m not sure how many people would instantly connect the dots, unless you’re of a certain age. I’m wondering if you all could speak to her and her legacy and perhaps a bit about what you’re hoping to accomplish with this book?

LS: Yeah, I think that’s true. There is such a monumental change in society through the time period that Phyllis progressed through. We’re talking about the women’s movement that came up in the late 60s and early 70s, which coincided exactly with Phyllis’s ascension, and the difference in how people view Miss America, for instance, from back in the 50s to today. The entire culture kind of tipped upside down, and Phyllis was a major part of that. [She was also] affected by her friends fighting in the Vietnam War. I mean, every major culture point that happened during that time, she was right on the point of it.

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