Eurosport's Trailblazers: Billie Jean King doesn’t want to be your hero - and for very good reason
Billie Jean King doesn’t want to be your hero. Calling her that, and the lionization that comes with it, allows us to relegate her work to the past, and she’s very much not done with that work, writes Caitlin Thompson. Billie Jean King is the latest subject of Trailblazers, a Eurosport original short film series that shines a light on the world’s greatest sporting icons who did more than just win.
Trailblazers - Billie Jean King: A stunning champion defined by off-court activism
Billie Jean King doesn’t want to be your hero—I know because I tried to tell her she was mine. Her resume for the job couldn’t contain more bona fides: a world number one tennis player who won a combined 39 Grand Slam titles, an advocate for gender and racial equity, the founder of the professional women’s tour 50 years strong—the list is long. But for me, it’s her work passing the landmark piece of legislation called Title IX that profoundly shaped my life and the lives of countless female athletes that stands out the most.
King hatched the idea for Women’s Tennis Association in 1971 and two years later, along with the “Original 9” players who comprised its union, formed a viable tour with backing from corporate sponsors. The reason she did it was because the men didn’t want to share—they’d enjoyed the lion’s share of the prize money (as well as under-the-table appearance fees) as part of Jack Kramer’s United States Lawn Tennis Association, and saw no need to include the women. “We always wanted to be with the men, but the men didn’t want us,” she famously said.
Billie Jean King in talks about equal prize money in 1975 at the All England Lawn Tennis Club
But she not only focused her efforts making sure the women’s professional game had the money, the stars and the hype to set the tour up to succeed — the Battle of the Sexes being most memorable — she also focused on fixing what so many diversity and equity efforts fail to address: the pipeline.
Prior to 1971, women’s sports received on average one percent of college athletic budgets and in high school athletics, males outnumbered women more than 12 to 1. Title IX was proposed as an amendment to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, requiring federally funded educational institutions to devote equal resources to male and female students, including in the realm of athletics. As the bill worked its way through Congress in 1971, King saw an opportunity to usher in an entire generation of pro-ready female athletes and in a larger and more lasting sense, change society’s perception of female athletes.
The tour’s number one player and then the highest-paid female athlete in the world went to Capitol Hill in Washington DC to testify in and it all but guaranteed Title IX’s passage and marked a massive shift in public opinion about the value of women in sports — whether competing at its highest levels or just providing equal access for girls for its own sake. That the world of female business executives is overwhelmingly composed of women who’ve played sports in high school or college shows how right she was.
You can see her handiwork start to manifest as that generation of female athletes came of age—perhaps most notably the US Women’s National Soccer Team won gold at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996 and at the World Cup in 1999, inspiring yet another cycle of female athletes — now with the opportunity to compete professionally in sports, or at the very least, on equal footing with their male counterparts at the high-school and collegiate levels.
US Women’s Soccer Team win Gold at the 1996 Olympic Games
Image credit: Getty Images
This is where I come back into the story, as Title IX was the reason I went to college. I sat down with King to tape an episode of The Racquet Magazine Podcast a few years ago, and one of the main goals I had in our chat was to personally thank her for doing the work — to change the lives of women, to change our sport and culture for the better, to show athletes how to use their power and platform to enact change. And to thank her for being a hero to me and many, many women just like me.
Billie stopped me in the middle of my thank you, almost annoyed. “I went to college because of you…” I started, already getting teary. “Not because of me, you did it because of Congresswoman Edith Green, Patsy Mink and Senator Birch Bayh — and I helped,” she interrupted, having no time for my sentimentality.
If you understand your history, you’ll understand why you had opportunities.
She went on to explain that she isn’t here to accept our laurels, to be captured in marble and placed on a shelf — but to pass the baton. She challenged me to use what I received from her and others and to put it into my work, and then to teach it to the next generation. Calling her a hero, and the lionization that comes with it, allows us to relegate her work to the past, and she’s very much not done with that work.
And it’s for that reason that I’ll say that Billie Jean King isn’t a hero — mine or yours — she’s a human being who decided to use her excellence in sport and to make room for others who’d have the chance to come up and take her place. Her challenge to me was to keep doing the work she started, so we’ll have to stop calling her a hero and instead call her a trailblazer.