On this week’s special (written) edition of Play Like a Girl, Meredith and Tia pay special tribute to Phyllis George, a pioneer of sports broadcasting and one of the first women to report sports on-air.
Hey friends - sorry we can’t share our dulcet tones with you this week, but it’s been a couple weeks since Phyllis George passed away, and Tia and I wanted to pay special tribute to this special person who paved the way so much for us and other female sportswriters and broadcasters.
Phyllis George did a lot of things throughout her career, but we’re going to focus on a subset that’s relevant to this podcast (even in written form). George was host of The NFL Today, CBS’ premiere pregame show, starting in 1975. It’s been many decades, the world has certainly changed and, as it relates to George, has opened up to women in sports.
Meredith: I’ll admit that I didn’t know a lot about Phyllis before hearing about her death, so I recognize that I’ve become one of those people who posthumously mourns someone who didn’t really impact me directly, but it was upsetting that I wasn’t really aware of the contributions of Phyllis as a pioneer in a field which is really important in my life. And even though her on-air time was before my time, her influence has certainly been felt: Doris Burke, Robin Roberts, Hannah Storm and others are all broadcasters I’ve looked up to over the years.
Tia: I’m with you in that I didn’t know much about her until now, but after googling her and watching YouTube video after YouTube video, I think she’s my new hero. Here are some good ones that capture who she was and some of the work she did:
It’s almost sad that, when I watch some of her interviews and broadcasts, my thoughts instantly go to “I bet so many people didn’t take her seriously,” which has nothing to do with her performance, and has everything to do with the fact that women sports broadcasters are still, to this day, not taken seriously by some, let alone George who was the very first woman to do it.
Meredith: I was born in 1990, and by that time, there were a few women in sports who I’ve always remembered being on the air (confirmed by The Last Dance, which featured several early- to mid-1990s female reporters), but I can’t imagine what it was like back in the 1970s when it really was “a man’s world.”
One of the things that stuck out to me was something her daughter said about when Phyllis would receive hate mail. “Mom said that when she stopped reading the letters, she gained so much confidence.” We’ve talked about that subject on the show so much, and it’s really such great advice. I mean, you want to be able to take guidance and grow (because a growth mindset is important), but when people are really just insecure about themselves and try to tear you down to build themselves up, it’s best to just ignore them.
What’s horribly depressing is that we continue to see this kind of behavior on social media (or in our comments section) every day. We’ve talked extensively on the pod about the quizzing and the comments that men will make when they find out we like sports, but at least we can laugh together about it. I can’t even imagine what it was like for Phyllis when she was literally the first woman there.
Tia: When you’re in the business of putting out content or speaking on camera, allowing yourself to be judged by everyone reading or watching or listening, I think it’s so easy to tell yourself “oh, I can ignore the trolls! They’re just insecure!” or “I’ll just turn a blind eye,” but turning that into action is incredibly difficult. Not only did George keep her chin up and blatantly ignore the hateful letters, she did so with grace and class. I have nothing against snapping back at awful comments you might get on Twitter— sometimes you just gotta reply— but I’m a firm believer that no reaction is the best reaction. It makes me smile thinking of those men back in the 70s who, even after sending her hate mail, had to watch her grace their televisions once more...with even more confidence.
Meredith: Phyllis was also Miss America back in 1971. I love that she used that platform to grow and pioneer the sports broadcast industry as a place for women. I’m going to be real: I couldn’t name a single Miss America winner, so it’s pretty cool that she continued to leverage that part of her life to build this place for women in sports.
Obviously the disparity still exists today. Brent Musburger, who was on NFL Today with Phyllis back in the day, cited the “dozens” of women whom Phyllis paved the way for when it came to sports broadcasting. “Dozens” is not a lot. There are literally dozens of sports networks with hundreds of shows and thousands of individuals involved over five decades. How are there only dozens of women that Musburger can think of?
Tia: Downsizing her impact to “a dozen” is a slap in the face to George, who literally paved the way for every single female sports broadcaster since 1975. Every single one of them. Like you said, that’s not a dozen, but thousands of women. Not to mention the hundreds of women in the 70s who loved sports, maybe wanted to work in sports, but were told it was not a place for women, only to see George pop up on their screens chatting about football.
“Sometimes you have to see it to be it; you have to know something is a career option in order to aspire to it,” SportsCenter anchor Hannah Storm told The New York Times. “Which means someone has to be first. That was Phyllis George — a true trailblazer.”