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Phyllis George Led The Way For Women Into Sportscasting

phyllis george
Suzanne Vlamis
CBS sportscaster Phyllis George in New York on this Nov. 28, 1976 .

Cincinnati and former ESPN sports anchor Betsy Ross is one of the many female sportscasters indebted to Phyllis George, the first woman to co-host a high-profile sports show on a major broadcast network.

George -- who died May 14 in Lexington, Ky., at age 70 -- co-hosted CBS' The NFL Today pregame show with Brent Musburger and Irv Cross 1975-78, and 1980-83. She also served as Kentucky's first lady (1979-83) while married to Gov. John Y. Brown, former owner of Kentucky Fried Chicken and the American Basketball Association's Kentucky Colonels.

betsy ross espn
Credit Courtesy Betsy Ross
Connersville native Betsy Ross anchored national sportscasts for ESPN, ESPNews and Sports Channel America.

"When I was growing up, I couldn't figure out how I could put together my love for writing, and my love for sports. Then I saw Phyllis George," says Ross, co-owner of Gameday Communications, the public address announcer for University of Cincinnati women's sports and a WXIX-TV sports contributor.

"She was one of the few females doing sports on an everyday basis.  It was groundbreaking," Ross says.

In a tweet, Musburger said that "Phyllis didn't receive nearly enough credit for opening the sports broadcasting door for the dozens of talented women who took her lead and soared."

Born in Texas in 1949, George won the 1971 Miss America crown while attending North Texas State. George later hosted TV's Celebrity Challenge Of The Sexes, the CBS Morning News and People, a short-lived TV series based on the popular magazine. She also appeared on numerous TV talk shows and game shows.

George split her time between Lexington and New York. She is the mother of Pamela Brown, CNN's senior White House correspondent, and Lincoln Brown, an entrepreneur. Here are their comments to CNN about their mother.

Ross asked George to write the foreword for her 2010 book, Playing Ball with the Boys: The Rise of Women in Men’s Sports. Her email correspondence with George while writing her book is "something that I'll always treasure. It was so special to talk to someone who had such an important role in my career. Because of her, I said, 'Yes, I can do this.' "

Ross, a Connersville native, studied journalism at Ball State University, then earned a master's degree in communications at Notre Dame in 1977 while working as a copy editor for the South Bend Tribune. Inspired by George, she offered her services to the Tribune sports editors and soon was covering high school and college basketball and football.

She didn't immediately pursue a sports career. Ross started as a TV news reporter in South Bend (1977-81), at WCPO-TV (1981-86) and Indianapolis' WTHR-TV (1986-89), before going to Sports Channel American (1989-90) as a national sports anchor on Cablevision's national sports service. For WCPO-TV, she covered George as Gov. Brown's wife, and later met her at a CBS press junket in New York for The NFL Today. They talked football.  

After a year at Sports Channel America, Ross returned to Cincinnati as an anchor-reporter for WLWT-TV (1990-97). Then she left for ESPN to anchor weekends on SportsCenter, and the new ESPNews (1997-2002). She came back here in 2002 to be closer to her mother, and to launch Game Day Communications with her business partner, Jackie Reau.

Ross says that all of Cincinnati's female sportscasters through the years -- Kathrine Nero, Paula Faris, Elyse Jessie, Lisa Cornwell --  covered sports for Cincinnati TV stations because Phyllis George led the way.

"We have such a debut of gratitude to her. Phyllis George made it a common thing to see a woman covering sports. It's so important now for young kids to see someone doing what they want to do some day," Ross says.

John Kiesewetter, who has covered television and media for more than 35 years, has been working for Cincinnati Public Radio and WVXU-FM since 2015.