Tennis legend and activist Billie Jean King regaled the 3,100 people inside the Colorado Convention Center on Wednesday for the annual Women’s Foundation of Colorado luncheon, reminding everyone that there is still so far to go when it comes to gender equality.
“When you read about history, you think, ‘Look how fast this went. Look at the progress,’” King said during the event, aimed at supporting the local nonprofit organization, which works toward improving economic security for women. “But when you live it, it goes so slow.”
King, a former world No. 1-ranked tennis player with a list of Grand Slam titles and athletic accomplishments a mile long, was chosen as the foundation’s speaker for her relentless fight for gender equality in the sport and beyond.
King’s perseverance paid off in 1973 when, at age 29, she won the famous “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against 55-year-old Bobby Riggs, which had long-lasting social impacts on and off the court.
After meeting with fans all morning and engaging in a public conversation about the state of tennis, women’s rights and Elton John, King was so genuine during our brief interview that my time spent trying to glean historic wisdom from the sports superstar was matched by her own earnest questions about who I was and what my goals were.
The interview has been edited for length.
For myriad reasons, many women in this country lately have expressed feelings of defeat, discouragement and that they’re not being heard. How do you move past those feelings to accomplish your goals?
“That’s why it’s so important to keep speaking and going and doing. Make sure you vote. To the people who didn’t vote, it shows what can happen. With the Supreme Court. The upcoming elections. I take a break emotionally and mentally sometimes. Then I start back up. Most people, I think, get their news at 6 and 11 — those soundbites — and that’s not good enough. To really find out what the truth is can be a lot of work, actually. They didn’t want to believe Anita Hill, they didn’t want to believe Dr. Ford, but a lot of sports psychologists I know are in even higher demand now because of all the abuse cases coming out. When people speak out, you are making a difference. Even if you only make a difference for one person. It’s empowering to be your authentic self. It’s powerful to talk about your abuse when you’re ready. If you’re not ready, don’t. It’s like being outed when you’re gay and not read to say it. I would never out anybody. Be kind and good, but sometimes you have to get angry. How you direct the anger — that’s the important thing. It’s perspective. When you’re younger, everything seems more dramatic. You pick your battles better when you get older.”
There’s so much going on with athletes and activism, like kneeling during the national anthem. When you hear people say athletes should just play their game and not get involved in political discourse, what’s your response?
“It’s all personal. Most of the guys in football who take the knee have family in the service, I find. The vets are all upset but they need to calm down. You need to understand somebody else’s journey. They’re just kneeling. They’re not causing fighting or causing anybody grief. I personally wouldn’t (kneel) during the anthem. I probably would kneel before and after because we still have racism in our country.”
When you saw the recent uproar with Serena Williams at the U.S. Open that made many feel sexism and racism contributed to her defeat by Naomi Osaka, what went through your head after fighting for women’s equality in tennis for so long?
“My brain was just frying. It was just burning with thoughts and trying to understand. If it could go wrong, it did. It was like Murphy’s Law that night. I knew that Serena didn’t know she got a warning. Usually in tennis, you get a soft warning where they say the coach is coaching you, and the next time it happens, you’re going to get a warning. That’s what he usually does, but he didn’t. He gave her a warning right away. And she didn’t even notice the guy. She and Venus do not look at their coaches. They don’t care. They’re in their own world out there. I have a one-up because I’ve known them since they were 9 and 10. You have to communicate with the fans. Nobody is telling the fans what’s going on. They’re booing, and they don’t know what they’re booing. You don’t want to take anything away from Osaka, who is our future — now and the future. She is fantastic. You can tell she hasn’t found her voice yet. She’s young. I hope she does find her voice. She’s got great heart, and she is really steely. She knows how to win and stay in the now and believes in herself. She’s great. It was a combination of low emotional IQ from the umpire, she thinking the first time was a cautionary warning and all he had to say was, ‘I’m not attacking your honesty,’ and to keep playing tennis”.
I cover news aimed toward younger readers, in their teens, 20s and 30s. There’s a lot of discussion about millennials and what they contribute to our culture. What do you think about millennials?
“Millennials are the greatest generation ever in inclusion, which is so important. They are the best. They understand that different cultures and kinds of people should all be together in the same room, and that’s just natural to them. We want it to be normal.”
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