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Tennis legend King spreads her message of equality

by on April 01, 2014 11:00 AM

Though she’s often hailed as a champion of women’s rights, tennis legend Billie Jean King made it clear at her lecture Monday at Indiana University of Pennsylvania that her message has always been for both sexes.

“It wasn’t about just women,” she said to a full house at Fisher Auditorium. “If men were underserved, I would have been trying to help them. Men and women on the same team — that’s what I wanted the world to look like.”

That’s the message she took to several events on campus, including an informal question-and-answer session with students and faculty, hosted by the Women’s Studies program, and at a reception in Sutton Hall.

[PHOTO: Carolyn Thompson, a retired IUP professor and former IUP women’s basketball coach, showed Billie Jean King photos and memorabilia from King’s career at a meet-and-greet with students in Leonard Hall on campus Monday.  (Jamie Empfield/Gazette photo)]

This year’s speaker for IUP’s Ideas and Issues series, funded by the IUP Student Co-op and presented by the Lively Arts, King took questions from the audience, hit autographed tennis balls into the crowd, and shared her personal story and life philosophy.

During her athletic career, King pushed back against critics who believed women and men couldn’t compete together. The pressure on and off the court intensified as she tried to open the doors for female athletes.

Not a day goes by, she said, that someone doesn’t bring up the 1973 match in which she defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes. As a 12-year-old, President Barack Obama watched the match and was so affected by it that it changed his idea of how he would raise his daughters, the president told her when he awarded King the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in 2009.

Going into that well-publicized match, she knew she was battling for more than just bragging rights. The country was at a turning point as Title IX was introduced to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender in educational programs and activities that receive federal funding, which included school athletics programs.

King said she wanted to prove the law was a step in the right direction.

“The reason I wanted to beat (Riggs) was because of Title IX. I wanted social change,” she said. “And I knew it would define me. I’d either be known as the girl who won or lost to that guy. It was enormous pressure.”

Asked by an audience member how she coped with the weight of the future of women’s athletics on her shoulders, she said she had to relax, relish the moment and “stay in the solution.”

She continued to be part of the solution after she stopped competing. She founded the Women’s Sports Foundation and co-founded World Team Tennis, the co-ed professional tennis league, now in its 39th season.

“We’re in 66 countries,” she said. “We’re in every part of the world, and we’ve got equal prize money now.”

But it’s never been just about the money or the matches for King. Though she knew in elementary school that she wanted to be the No. 1 tennis player in the world, she made up her mind at age 12 that fighting for equal rights for men and women was the most important thing she could do with her life.

“Winning matches was always secondary to making social change,” she said. “I want to be relevant off the court.”

King has continued to help the underserved through her work with the Elton John AIDS Foundation, which provides programming and funding for those who are infected, affected or at risk of HIV/AIDS. She’s a member of the organization’s board and has helped to raise more than $225 million in support of programs in 55 countries.

She also co-founded GreenSlam, an initiative dedicated to establishing eco-friendly sporting venues, events and products, and was appointed in 2010 to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.

No matter what she’s doing, King starts every day by counting her blessings and getting herself “psyched” to do what she can for others.

“It’s so important for men and women to champion each other,” she said. “The real heroes and ‘sheroes’ are at the grassroots level. They’re close to you.”

Emily Weber has been a staff writer at The Indiana Gazette since February 2013. She graduated from Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 2014 with a degree in journalism and English writing studies. Emily can be reached at
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