By Janaé Bradford, Staff Reporter
It is a common belief in many Black communities that younger generations must acknowledge the pioneers that paved the way for the changes that we see today. Black women in sports aren’t new to the industry, with the earliest tracings of Black female sports professionals dating back 50 years ago.
Women like D.C. trailblazer Jayne Kennedy Overton motivated Black journalists to be more than pretty faces. She isn’t known for her pageantry career, but for much more, as she was the first Black pageant queen to cover a Super Bowl following the Civil Rights Movement. What makes her story even more special is that she’s still alive today, and she was born in D.C. when it was known as the chocolate city, as she personifies the greatness attached to that name.
Kennedy deserves her flowers while she’s still here.
The Start of Her Career
Her career kicked off with modeling, along with being the first black Miss Ohio at the age of 18. During that time, it was evident that many Black women didn’t win crowns or participate in pageants. Despite the lack of diversity, Kennedy Overton powered through and advanced to the top 10 for Miss USA that same year.
A decade later, she made a groundbreaking experience posing mainly clothed for Playboy, which was unheard of at the time. After finishing high school in Ohio, she moved to California with her former husband Leon Isaac Kennedy to pursue her entertainment career. She made appearances in the Hollywood business as a background dancer for Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In and Hope’s international Christmas World Tour. Overton also performed as a member of the Ding-A-Ling Sisters on The Dean Martin Show.
In the late 1970s, Overton continued to make history but in the sports broadcasting industry.
As a sports reporter, the industry celebrated her in 1977 when she won an Emmy for her work at the Rose Bowl Parade for CBS. The lifelong Cleveland Browns fan later received a role announcing for NFL Today.
Kennedy became the first Black woman announcer on a nationally televised sports program in 1978 when she replaced Phyllis George on The NFL Today.
Just like any other sports show in the late 1970s, it was dominated by white men. Kennedy Overton’s appeal as a former cheerleader and sports fan allowed her to connect with the athletes personally and showcase her talents outside of her appearance.
The nation continued to be graced with Overton’s presence on numerous covers of Ebony and Jet magazine, the most prominent black magazines in the world to date.
Adding to her historical achievements, Overton was the first black actress to be on the cover of Playboy Magazine, and unlike many publishers, the late Hugh Heifner insisted on her being on the cover as well as allowing her to be fully clothed to protect her image. Her manager at the time was hesitant to submit Overton for positions and opportunities because companies at the time wouldn’t be as willing to work with Black women, an issue that even Black women with lighter complexions faced.
Throughout the 1980s, her rich skin-tone worked in her favor as she graced the covers of both Ebony and Jet Magazines.
A Turning Point
Jayne began to experience issues with her health that shifted the direction of her life. Doctors diagnosed her with endometriosis, and she needed three surgeries to remove the tissue from her uterus. Still, that diagnosis didn’t prevent her from continuing to create a family with her current husband, Bill Overton. After how chaotic her life was getting, she knew how difficult it would be to continue growing her career while starting a family.
“I put off having a family because I knew that I wanted to be there for my family and I was traveling a lot. At that time, the industry was not ready to allow pregnant women the opportunity to still be on camera or on the silver screen. Today it’s a completely different story, but back then, I would have lost my contract,”said Overton.
With life, there are moments of regret, but the impact that Jayne Kennedy Overton has left is unforgettable. To have inspired women like the media powerhouse, Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King to start careers in television is an exceptional accomplishment.
Kennedy Overton is acknowledged for her groundbreaking work in an exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. alongside household names such as Nate King Cole and Diana Ross. Her legacy is just as important in the entertainment industry as anyone else because she proved that she was always more than a pretty face.
Cari Champion, Jemele Hill, or even other sports journalists like myself could not exist in the sports industry without Jayne Kennedy Overton.