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The Champ: Tennis legend Billie Jean King pushed for the passage of Title IX in 1972. Now she has a pointed message for this generation of female athletes.

By Ben Fischer
ap images

Picture it: Los Angeles’ Wrigley Field, 1953.

A nine-year-old Billie Jean Moffitt and her kid brother, Randy, sit in the stands watching the Los Angeles Angels play a Pacific Coast League game. The children of accomplished recreational athletes, their thoughts turn to a day when they might draw a paying audience for their own feats.

“All of a sudden, it dawned on me that because I’m a girl, that I’d never get to play professional baseball, and I was crushed,” Billie Jean recalled recently. “And I probably haven’t been the same since that day, really.”

Driven by that sense of righteous indignation first sparked on a sunny day at a minor league baseball game — and further fostered as she continued to learn the inequities of the world first-hand — the girl who would later be known to the world as Billie Jean King became the modern era’s most visible and effective voice for gender equality in sports and society.

At great risk to her own career that would include 12 Grand Slam singles titles, King helped found the Virginia Slims tennis tour in 1970, leading to the creation of the WTA three years later. Also in 1973, she became the face of her gender in the blockbuster spectacle “The Battle of the Sexes” exhibition match, beating Bobby Riggs in front of a TV audience of 90 million people, helping both tennis and the women’s liberation movement gain a major victory in mainstream society. It was, as former NBA Commissioner David Stern once told longtime Boston Globe writer Jackie MacMullan, the “single biggest moment in women’s sports history.”

The next year, King founded the Women’s Sports Foundation, today still the leading advocacy group for girls and women in sports. She’s won a Presidential Medal of Freedom, the French Legion of Honour, and seen her named affixed to USTA headquarters and the Federation Cup.

“You can’t just have a seat at the table,” said King, 50 years after playing a leading role in getting the law enacted. “You have to have a voice at the table.”getty images

And though she was a professional by the time Title IX was enacted 50 years ago, it may never have become law had it not been for King, whose testimony, wrote the New York Times in 2021, “all but guaranteed the passage of Title IX.”

For more than half a century, King has played a critical role in cultivating women’s sports in society: The inspiration. The symbol. The energy. That role was apparent on June 9, when she was the headline speaker at a Title IX anniversary event at Gillette Stadium. 

“I’ve had the pleasure many of times of being in her company, and she’s just electric,” MacMullan said while introducing King that day. “She takes each of you in, and gives you each some of her energy, encourages you to go out and try to change the world. And that’s what Billie Jean King has done: Change the world.”

King’s effectiveness comes not just from her advocacy from afar but from being a force to bring about change. “You can’t just have a seat at the table,” she told the audience. “You have to have a voice at the table.”

Never shy to use her own voice to advance the cause of women in sports, King implored Stern in a face-to-face conversation in the early days of the WNBA’s existence not to let the league fail as other women’s professional basketball leagues had. “I promise you I won’t,” the commissioner told her.

At the Gillette Stadium event, King delivered a message for the next generation of athletes who must lead as she has.

“I want you to think beyond playing,” King said. “Think about ownership. If you’re on a soccer team now, think about ownership. And understand the business of your sport. That’s the most important thing.”

In 1974, King was part of the group that founded World TeamTennis — one of the only professional sports promotions to have women and men compete on the same teams — and maintains an equity stake to this day, though she sold her majority interest in 2017. She founded BJK Enterprises, an investment, consulting, and marketing firm with interests across the sports landscape. More recently, with her wife, Ilana Kloss, she has acquired stakes in Angel City FC, the Los Angeles Dodgers, and the L.A. Sparks.

Progress, King notes, has been made by paying attention to what’s wrong in the world, and demanding change from the people with the ability to fix it. “Go to the people in power. Ask for what you want and need,” King said. “This is particularly hard for women and girls.”

Though she always saw a world that needed changing — at age 12 she recalls wondering about her all-white tennis club: “Where is everybody else?” — it was often too slow in coming during her playing career. When she won the singles title at Wimbledon in 1968, the first year of the open era, her prize check was 38% that of men’s champion Rod Laver — 750 pounds to his 2,000 pounds.

“I thought, oh boy, it’s going to be another challenge,” she said.

As King reflected on 50 years of Title IX, she thought of where the next set of challenges are already being felt.

“[Title IX] helped suburban white girls the most,” King said. “So we need to, in the next 50 years, really, really step it up for girls of color, girls living with disabilities, trans athletes, the LGBTQ+ community … These are the things we have to worry about if we’re going to do the right things in the next 50 years.”

Those future advancements will only enhance King’s true legacy, one born at a minor league baseball game at a stadium that was torn down before Title IX existed, sitting next to a brother who would go on to pitch 12 years in the major leagues without having to face the challenges his older sister regularly surmounted.

“Unless you’ve been excluded you really don’t understand inclusion,” King said. “So make sure you think about others.”

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