Interview with Billie Jean King
You know Billie Jean King as a tennis champion, feminist icon, gay rights activist and a breaker of boundaries (and a few rules in her day). But she's also a student of history who has her heroes and "sheroes": court greats such as Althea Gibson and Alice Marble, as well as former Congresswoman Patsy Mink and the politicians who helped pass the landmark Title IX legislation in 1972 that mandated gender equity in U.S. schools, resulting in more girls' sports opportunities.
King's courage in fighting to level the playing field in sports in the 1960s and '70s has made her a pioneer for girls who now take high school, college and professional sports for granted. She signed a $1 contract to play in the Virginia Slims tennis tournament, which became the first professional tour for women, in 1970. She founded the Women's Tennis Association in 1973, the same year she defeated former No. 1 men's player Bobby Riggs in one of the most famous matches in history. And in 1974, she co-founded the coed professional tennis league World TeamTennis and founded the Women's Sports Foundation. She was persistent in calling for equal prize money in her sport, which resulted in the U.S. Open being the first Grand Slam tournament to pay the same to men's and women's champions in 1973. (Wimbledon, the last holdout, finally caught up in 2007).
She ended her professional singles career in 1983, and in 2006 the U.S. Tennis Association (USTA) National Tennis Center was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Now, she would love to be able to hit just one shot the way kids do today. "Everybody goes, 'How would your generation do against them?' I say, 'I'd get one point if they double fault,' " she quips.
Although the term "shero" is in King's vocabulary, "retirement" isn't. Instead, the 64-year-old stays busy in what she calls her "transition." She has signed endorsement deals with Merrill Lynch and NutriSystem and is on the presidential campaign trail supporting Hillary Clinton. King's latest book (written with Christine Brennan), to be published in August, is called "Pressure is a Privilege." And May marks the opening of the Sports Museum of America in New York, where the Billie Jean King International Women's Sports Center will be the nation's first permanent women's sports hall of fame and exhibit. I was honored to join this woman of great energy and strong views at the museum.
Roberts Why is this museum important to you?
King Each generation stands on the shoulders of the generations before. That, I think, is really important when I talk to young people about history. I always say, the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself. I'm very big on connecting the generations -- even with the women tennis players today. I know them, and I text-message a lot of them. I'm connected; I try to get them connected to us.
"I always say, the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself."
-- Billie Jean King
Over time, have you seen a tangible difference for women in sports?
Oh, we're shockingly off. Just for example, we get 8% of the sports page. We have about $1 billion in sponsorship worldwide -- men have more than $25 billion. And that's just the beginning. We have so far to go in the sports world. And yet, sports are a microcosm of society. If you know where we are in sports, you kind of know where the world is. Is the world getting more unpredictable? Is it getting more aggressive? Yeah, so is sports. It's getting much more vulgar. Nobody wants to play by the rules anymore. Look at the steroids. Look at everything that goes on -- that's exactly what's going on in the world.
What about Title IX?
Title IX changed everything, and 1996 was the first Olympics where Title IX really paid off. We won the gold in softball, soccer -- women's team sports. I come from team sports originally, not tennis, so my true love is basketball and other team sports. When I started the Women's Sports Foundation, I said, "We have to get team sports," and, of course, Title IX was able to change that and have team sports be a big deal.
You did so much in your career, but you got the most press during your match with Bobby Riggs in 1973. Looking back on that, was it just a hoot in your mind?
No, no. I was a mess because I knew what it meant. It was about social change. Remember, Title IX had just been passed, and I did not want us to go backward. Also, we were only in our third year with the Virginia Slims tour, a very tenuous position, trying to build this infrastructure, and didn't know if we were going to make it. Bobby chased me around for three years, these three years we're trying to build the tour, and I go, "Bobby! I'm a little busy here!"
What was your relationship with him like after the match?
I adored him. We stayed in touch. I kept telling him, "It's not about winning a match. It's about making history, making a difference." The last conversation we had on the phone, the day before he passed away in 1995, he said, "We did make a difference, didn't we?" I thought, "He finally got it." It was so sweet. Then I told him I loved him, and he said he loved me. I really enjoyed him because he was such a showman, but the world didn't really appreciate him as a player, and I did. I think he underestimated me because he didn't realize how much I knew about him.
Why don't women attend sporting events like women's basketball games?
Because they don't get it. Here's how a guy looks at a ticket: "I'll buy a season ticket, and I'll worry about who we're going to give the tickets to later." Here's how a woman looks at them: She goes, "What days should we go, and how many free things can we get?" Women don't appreciate it -- they do not connect. They didn't grow up in the culture.
So, presumably, if women and girls don't go to the games ...
The girls have to see it not only in collegiate sports, but they need to see professional opportunities -- so they can stay in what they love, what they're highly skilled in and make a living. Nothing is better than when you hit somebody where they're passionate, and they can make a living. That's when people are on a roll.
What do you think of the tennis of today?
These kids are so superior to my generation, and every generation gets better. But it's like being a parent -- every generation wants the next generation to be better than you were, and it's the same in sports.
Why are they better?
It's the strings, the rackets, the knowledge, the nutrition, the movement. Everything is much more powerful, from the way they hit the ball to the equipment they use. It's just so much better. Technique-wise, it's just night and day from the way we were taught. They're more open in the way they play, which allows them to be stronger and have more rotation with their swings.
Talk about Wimbledon finally offering equal pay in 2007.
I was so happy. I'd waited forever, fought for it forever, but guess who took the lead of the young kids? Venus Williams. [Williams wrote an opinion piece in "The Times" (of London) in 2006 that Wimbledon was "on the wrong side of history."] She was great. Finally, we had a person who wanted to step up a little -- or a lot -- because since me, there was, "Who's next? Who's going to lead?" I kept saying, "Oh, we're looking," and then Venus Williams -- it got through to her.
She stepped up to a fight you had waged for decades.
In 1968, we started that fight. The equal prize money's not about the money -- we're making lots of money. It's about the message. It's empowering girls to think they can do anything. I don't want girls, or boys, to ever think they're inferior. Everyone deserves the dream. Everyone.
What difference do you think it makes to girls if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency?
You have to see it to be it. If a girl sees a woman [succeed at something new], all of a sudden, the sky truly is the limit. It's not just an idea anymore -- it's real, and it sends a message. It uplifts over half the population of the world every time a woman gets going.
One of the places where you've been an icon is in gay rights. That's bound to have had an effect on young women, particularly, but also on young men in the world.
People in the gay community come up to me a lot and say "thank you." They get tears in their eyes, and the ones who are older and saw me go through my palimony case have a much better understanding of what I was going through. Thirty-four years ago is much different from what it is today. It keeps getting better, slowly but surely. But the problem is, we're in the minority, and when you're a minority, you have to wait a long time -- just like people of color with civil rights. You need straight people who have compassion and can put themselves in your shoes.
In my new book, "Ladies of Liberty," I quote Fanny Wright, who was a women's rights activist and wrote in an 1821 book: "Much of [America's] virtue emanated from the wives and daughters of her senators and soldiers, and to preserve to her sons,the energy of free men and patriots, she must strengthen that energy in her daughters." She thought women needed more exercise.
She got it! You have to move. Women don't trust their bodies. You can't believe how many times I have to tell a woman in a tennis clinic, "Trust yourself, and trust your body." Girls are always second-guessing themselves. I know I do it.
I listen to you reflecting on these years, and we're about the same age. I will admit to being a Pollyanna here,but there's so much that is so much better.
I know, but that's not how I'm made. You're absolutely correct. If I pause and embrace it, it's great that we have gotten this far. But what's that got to do with today and tomorrow? You know, my dad never let me read my press clippings, and it was the greatest thing that he ever did. The first time I made the front of the sports page in the "Long Beach Press-Telegram," I had lost, 6-love, 6-love, and I was just crushed. I had won all of these other matches, and they never put me on the front page. And my dad never let me forget that moment. He said, "Billie, I don't want you to ever read a press clipping again." And I said to him, "Well, why not?" "Because it's about yesterday. It's not about today and tomorrow."
April 4, 2008