Billie Jean King: The First Female Athlete-Activist

Billie Jean King: The First Female Athlete-Activist

In 1972, her testimony in front of Congress all but guaranteed the passage of Title IX, which ended discrimination based on sex and is hailed as the single most important moment in women’s sports history. That 94 percent of women in American C-suites say they played sports as girls, and that collegiate athletes like me had their education paid for because of Title IX, is evidence of its generational impact.

In the ’80s King’s career slowed down, featuring fewer titles and some business calamities, and her life was upturned by a palimony suit filed by a former female lover. King’s outing, along with costing her millions in sponsorships, set in motion a period of deep introspection and allowed her to finally deal with lifelong struggles with eating disorders and internalized homophobia, and it also seems to have clarified for her the need to battle the sport’s elitism in a more tactical and intentional way.

When she was a young girl, her dust-ups with the tennis establishment at the stuffy and exclusionary Los Angeles Tennis Club — over everything from sexist dress codes to racist door policies — had irritated the working-class kid, and while she might not have had a road map, exactly, for what shape her future activism would take, she definitely saw the road. “There was this gap between what I thought I was capable of and the world as it was,” King writes. “I saw that gulf clearly. I was less sure how to breach it.”

Her continuous fight to be included — and her instinct to include others in the fight — made her a force in real time. But it’s from these years in the wilderness when she took stock — particularly following the deaths of ultimately close friends like Ashe and Riggs — that King began to put a contemporary activist framework around her trailblazing.

Her efforts in the decades since, from advising the ’99ers — the U.S. women’s national soccer team, which turned their victory in the 1999 World Cup into a viable professional league — to defending L.G.B.T.Q. rights, work that was recognized by Obama with a Presidential Medal of Freedom, have been defined so much by her activism that it’s easy to take her for granted, and easy to assume that someone is ready to take her place.

“I’ve told people if I die right now I’d be really ticked off because I’m not finished,” she writes, scanning the horizon. “Time is running out for real, and I’ve always had a sense of urgency.”

Despite a resurgence in recreational popularity and huge money at the top of the ecosystem, tennis is at a crossroads: Equity, parity and inclusion are still not always the priority. The absence of a clear new leader means that King must view her work as imperiled. With the sport currently in turmoil over player unions, the lack of a viable domestic violence policy, a vociferous battle over press obligations and rumors of venture capital at the gates, ready (for better or worse) to buy it all up, King’s book arrives with the same exquisite timing that has defined her style of play as well as her life.

It’s easy work to be a former champion, easier still to be a legend — after all, the job requirements are nothing beyond showing up. But it’s not easy to be an activist, and it’s certainly not easy to commit your life to pushing the world closer to how you want it to be. “All In” reads as a manifesto, like “Letters to a Young Poet” with a heavy dash of bell hooks. Billie Jean King is not done yet, but as she says here, “If you’re in the business of change, you have to be prepared to play the long game.” Her book is a powerful rallying cry, in a life full of them, for how she hopes we play the game after she’s gone.

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