Jayne Harrison Kennedy-Overton: American TV’s First Black Female Sports Reporter

It’s Black History Month. Every year in February, black people in the US, Canada and the UK, promote and celebrate the achievements of humans of black heritage who have made major contributions to international culture and history.

During the past several weeks of the National Football League, (NFL), Playoffs as well as the coverage of Super Bowl XLVIII, sportscaster Pam Oliver, an American black female sports reporter for FOX, has been in the news because of her appearance. Many of the members of the teevee sports viewing audience think the content of her reports are informative. They just believe her hair could be more tidy when on camera at various sporting events.

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Which brings us to the very first African American female sportscaster on a US national teevee network, CBS.  Jayne Harrison Kennedy-Overton. She was one of the more recognizable faces of the 1970s and early 1980s thanks to myriad television, and movie roles, advertising contracts for Jovan, the fragrance, Tab the diet soft drink plus many numerous Ebony/Jet covers.

“I knew that if I had a chance to get that job I would be a household name.” ~ Jayne Kennedy-Overton on getting hired to co-anchor the CBS network program NFL Today

Having won the Miss Ohio USA beauty competition, the first black to do so, Jayne went on to become one of the 15 semi-finalists in the Miss USA 1970 pageant. At the time in American history it was quite an accomplishment for an African American woman to be in the contest, and to go as far as being a semi-finalist in the competition placing fourth runner-up.

A popular Detroit-area disc jockey named Leon Isaac Kennedy, began to date Jayne Harrison. They wed in a 1972 ceremony with Motown star Smokey Robinson as best man to her husband. The couple moved to Los Angeles, and Kennedy-Overton began working in television advertising. Her husband Leon Isaac became a writer, producer and an actor primarily in blaxploitation films of the time.

Jayne’s first job in teevee was as a dancer on Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. She even served a stint with comedian Bob Hope on his overseas tours to entertain American troops in Southeast Asia near the end of the Vietnam War. She was a regular on The Dean Martin Show as a dancer, which led to episodic television roles in such popular series as Shaft, Kojak, Sanford & Son, and Starsky & Hutch.

Jayne Kennedy went on to become the first African American woman to grace the cover of Playboy, as well as the first black woman to join the staff of CBS Sports’ NFL Today.

She’d been advised by experts in entertainment she’d be better served not to diversify. Dancer, actress, spokes model, Jayne knew she’d avail herself of more opportunities by showcasing a multitude of communications skills rather than wait to be hired solely as an actress.

Jayne Kennedy landed the job as the co-anchor at CBS’s NFL Today; it was a job she performed for two years, from 1978 to 1980. The actress and former model was the first African-American woman to anchor a network sports program. She also hosted the syndicated “Greatest Sports Legends” program for three years. Her presence was definitely impactful. It was a time in teevee history when hiring attractive women was merely a ratings maneuver designed to increase the number of male viewers.

Kennedy-Overton  replaced a former Miss America, Phyllis George, in a sports broadcasting ensemble with Brent Musburger, Irv Cross, and Jimmy “The Greek” Snyder. Viewership of the CBS show during the 1978 fall football season was high, about 7 million during which Kennedy-Overton displayed her command of NFL statistics and team rosters; she engaged in an exchange of light, playful teasing with her co-hosts on-air, and interviewed athletes.

Kennedy-Overton has acknowledged the difficulties encountered by a black actress in Hollywood during this era.

“I like it when someone says you are intelligent or pretty; but universal is a quality most people in Hollywood don’t want to see in blacks. That’s an appreciation of my talent. I did an episode of ‘Police Woman’ last year and I played an inmate, wore no make-up and had my hair pulled in a pony tail. And the producer said ‘I like you because you want to work, you want to be good.’ And that’s the nicest thing anyone could say.” ~ Jayne Harrison Kennedy-Overton in an interview with the Washington Post‘s Jacqueline Trescott a few years ago.

1979 brought the film Penitentiary starring Kennedy and her husband, Leon Isaac in a blaxploitation film; it was a minor hit among films of that genre. He was a popular actor in the black films at the time.

In 1980 CBS fired Kennedy-Overton. The Tiffany network honchos claimed she violated her contract by taping an audition on rival network NBC for  an episode of “Speak Up America”.  Kennedy-Overton says she was given permission by CBS to take the audition; the network disagreed. She was hired for the NBC program.

After ten years of a childless marriage the couple, Leon Isaac and Jayne Kennedy divorced. The decision to part ways came after the 1981 release of a remake of the film “Body and Soul”, with his wife Jayne in the role as a television journalist who interviews a famous boxer, played by her husband; Jayne won the NAACP Image Award for best actress for her part in the film.

In the early 1980s, joining other celebrities promoting fitness videos, Overton-Kennedy, herself, released a top selling how-to video, Love Your Body.

In 1985 Jayne Harrison Kennedy married actor, entrepreneur, Bill Overton. They had met years before while working on a 1977 television movie called Cover Girls; its premise was nearly a copy of the hit teevee series Charlie’s Angels. Even though she’d suffered debilitating pain from a condition known as endometriosis; it’s a gynecological disorder and she’d become the spokesperson for National Endometriosis Foundation, she was able to give birth to her first daughter in 1985, as well as two more daughters. Other remedies brought no relief; the condition did not subside until she endured a surgical procedure.

During the 1990s Kennedy-Overton spent her time raising her children. She and the family split time between Los Angeles, California and a farm they own in Maine.

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Jayne also says she conquered a weight gain which caused the former model, dancer and exercise advocate to weigh in past the 200-pound mark.  In an interview with Ebony journalist Laura B. Randolph, she says one of the reasons being overweight was so embarrassing for her is the fact she once had a very popular exercise video. “So here I am, the preacher of being in shape and maintaining good habits, and I am so out of shape….” She didn’t feel she was a good example to her children because she says she always taught them how important it is to be in shape.

Now Jayne Harrison Kennedy-Overton concentrates on activities to improve the community as well as writing her memoirs. An earnest and sincere Christian woman, she is involved with her church. She has also done charity work for groups including the National Lung Association, the Sickle Cell Anemia Foundation, and the National Endometriosis Foundation; she has served as a spokeswoman for the National Council of Negro Women and was a member of the board of the Efficacy Institute, which offers encouragement to students destined for college.

 

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