Commentary

King dedicated to empowering women

Tennis legend: Until women are brought out of poverty, humanity can't move forward

Originally Published: February 3, 2010
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

How can you cover the net in life if you keep your feet firmly planted on the baseline of legend status?

Well, you can't. That's why Billie Jean King keeps charging forward, hopping on flights across the world, making speeches, diving into projects, learning new things. Being a tennis champion who changed not just her sport but the course of women's athletics might be enough for one lifetime for most people.

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King
Robert Prezioso/Getty ImagesBillie Jean King says we must empower women, not just for their sake, but for all humanity's sake.

It's just not enough for King, who hasn't opted to be a static torchbearer. That works great for monuments, like the Statue of Liberty, but not so well for human beings.

So she needs to be approachable and down-to-earth and open to a different spin on issues she has pondered for decades. She needs to keep moving. If she's to be regarded as a living legend, she'd prefer you focus on the "living" part of that.

So she makes an analogy to her life's work -- promoting not just women's rights but human rights -- in a way that seems cheerfully mundane. She compares it to the laundry.

"The most difficult part of everything is the finish!" King said. "Whether it's a business deal, a book, a project, in sports -- whatever. You can get, like, 98-99 percent there, like in a match, but it is so difficult to really finish and to win.

"It's like, I just got a load of clothes done, but I still have to fold them. And that will be the challenge."

That comparison actually increases in resonance the more you think about it. Because the laundry is never really "done." It always needs to be done again and again and again.

Such is the case with the battles King has dedicated her time to, not just as an athlete but an entrepreneur and activist. If it had to be distilled into a sentence, maybe it's this: empowering women, not just for their sake, but for all humanity's sake, too.

"None of us will see that finish," King said pragmatically, not bitterly. "Have you read 'Half the Sky'? I'm very interested in micro-financing, and how to do it through sports.

"I've been saying since the beginning of the 21st century that this is the century of women. People are finally understanding that until you bring women out of poverty, until you stop discounting them, and treating them like slaves -- that's the word they use in the book -- humanity can't move forward."

The book she references is by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists who make a compelling case that the economic and social well-being of the world rests on confronting the enormity of gender-based discrimination that has resulted in the mass murder, rape, torture and oppression of millions of females.

The title comes from the Chinese saying "Women hold up half the sky," and while the book's details will make you weep, the realistic and workable solutions it offers will make you want to leap to action.

"I thought it was fascinating," King said. "I like to read things slowly, and then go away and think about them."

Then, she wants to get involved. Always.

"It's getting in people's minds in a big way now that there is a real synergy and push to not allowing different societies or religions to discount women," she said. "Because when you do that, you really hurt your country. Countries where women are not a big part of politics and professions, or are totally excluded -- those counties are far behind. And their children suffer so much."

In August, King and 15 others were given the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the United States' highest civilian honor. A fellow recipient was Dr. Muhammad Yunus, a pioneer in the field of micro-loans, who began the Grameen Bank in his native Bangladesh in 1983 for that purpose. The bank gives small sums at very low interest rates to individuals and communities looking to improve lives, often through starting women-owned businesses.

Because poverty in many regions is so extreme, the sums needed for such loans are very, very small by the standards of more-fortunate cultures. The $100 an average American might spend on a cell phone bill every month could be enough for a woman in an impoverished country to start, for instance, her own embroidery business.

"I was so happy to stand alongside Dr. Yunus, because he's one of my heroes," King said. "Micro-financing is really how we're going to get women out of poverty. The potential and hope for women is there, and sports can help that because we're visible.

"Women need to see other women do well. It empowers them. We in athletics can help be a face of change and be a force. That's the responsibility of all of us."


Feb. 3 is National Girls and Women in Sports Day, but King is thinking of the synthesis between sports and the betterment of women's lives every day.

She was at the forefront of the so-called "women's liberation" movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s. She is happy to discuss all that, especially since people who are younger than age 45 or so don't have a living memory of events such as "The Battle of the Sexes" with Bobby Riggs in 1973.

I've been saying since the beginning of 21st century that this is the century of women. People are finally understanding that until you bring women out of poverty, until you stop discounting them, and treating them like slaves -- that's the word they use in the book -- humanity can't move forward.

-- Billie Jean King

They probably can't grasp how outlandishly optimistic King and others had to be when they signed $1 contracts in 1970 to start the first women's professional tennis tour.

So she will talk candidly about the past, and how she had to work at becoming the confident spokesperson she is for causes ranging from equal prize money in Grand Slam events, to micro-financing, to the importance of sports and the arts in public schools, to gay rights, to physical fitness for all ages, to …

Well, to tennis. With all the other banners King tries to carry, let's never forget her love of the sport that propelled her to fame.

"To me, tennis was my self-expression," King said. "As you get older, it's more and more important to try to stay active. It keeps your body strong; it helps you fend off disease. It keeps you vital.

"You can go slower; in fact, you have to. I know I'm not going to play tennis like I used to, but it doesn't matter. I still get the same thrill out of just hitting the ball."

King is having joint replacement surgery on both knees later this month.

"I am itching to get this done because I want to keep playing and it will give me a better quality of life," she said. "We have a 95-and-over age division in our [national] tennis championships. That should tell you something about tennis truly being a lifetime sport. It's the best. You use your upper and lower body, your eyes, you have to turn, it keeps you loose, keeps you strong."

King was just in Australia, watching Serena Williams win the Australian Open, tying King with 12 Grand Slam singles titles. This week, King will be in Kansas City as the keynote speaker for a women's sports awards luncheon sponsored by a local organization that sprouted from the umbrella of the Women's Sports Foundation, which King founded in 1974.

Then she'll have the knee surgery. Then it will be on to the next item on her never-ending agenda.

"I like to look things up and research them right before I go someplace, so it's fresh. I get totally immersed," King said of how she manages her continual traveling and advocacy. "I compartmentalize well."

She described a recent quick turnaround in her life: "I went to the White House Monday to talk about the Women's Sports Foundation. Then to the State Department. Tuesday, I was doing meetings for World Team Tennis. Boom, boom, boom. I just shift my brain to the topic at hand. I have to be present -- and that's what sports teaches you: to work to a solution, to know where you're at. It's the same in business and in life."

But speaking of business, King knows quite well that in difficult economic times, endeavors that traditionally have been underfinanced are usually going to be threatened again. Women's sports are among them, but not alone.

"It's the same with the arts," King said. "I just saw Sandra Bullock being interviewed. She grew up in an artistic family, but she also understands the value of sports.

"She talked about sports and the arts in schools and how you cannot get rid of them. That's the worst thing they can do -- because that's where kids explore their creativity, where they feel happy, where they're fulfilled. We're doomed if we get rid of those things to save money. They are about the core, the soul of human beings."

But then King's mind, which always has these lightning flashes about every topic, takes a quick turn.

"Have you seen her movie, 'The Blind Side'?" King said. "I know there are some who look at it and don't like it. They say, 'Just another film about black people needing white people to help them. Oh, great.'

"What Sandra Bullock said is this film isn't about race, it's about love. She explained that comes from her family background and how she perceives the world. But I wanted to know how African-American people felt about this movie, because I figured it's going to have a different spin on it for them than for white people.

"See, that's why it's so important to be around and talk to different people. Because you get different points of view. And you may not agree with it, but it makes you think and find the common ground."


Tuesday night on Tennis Channel, one of those vintage matches: Jimmy Connors versus Arthur Ashe, 1975 Wimbledon final. Connors was the brash, often obscene, hotheaded defending champion; Ashe the reserved, dignified, elder statesman. Ashe won that match, and as you watch it, you think, "Wow, it was 35 years ago."

[+] EnlargeBillie Jean King
AP PhotoBillie Jean King won her fourth Wimbledon title in 1972.

And the female champion at Wimbledon that year? Billie Jean King. It was her sixth and final singles title at the All England Club, and she trounced Evonne Goolagong Cawley 6-0, 6-1 in the final.

King had savored competition since she was a child. She laughs at the story of her third-grade teacher, who told King's parents to always keep her in sports to satisfy her need to face and conquer pressure.

King wrote the book "Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I've Learned from Life and The Battle of the Sexes," in 2008. She has long used the mantra "pressure is a privilege" both with herself and in helping other tennis competitors she has coached or trained.

But she knows that most people aren't going to be sports champions. Participation in sports helps them with other goals.

"I want people to be champions in life," she said. "Look, some people are very highly skilled in athletics, but that doesn't mean they are good people. I don't have interest in them. I'm 66; I don't have time for that."

She does have time, of course, to work with fellow former champions who are giving back.

"I was just in Cape Town, South Africa, in early December to see this school that Steffi Graf supports, called 'Children for Tomorrow.' You can't believe the conditions these kids are used to living in -- sometimes 10 people in a room with a dirt floor, they're lucky if they have a blanket -- but these children are so cute. All they want is a chance to learn.

"They have a cultural center, classes, a psychologist -- it's a complete package. It was fantastic to see how these kids are thriving with these opportunities and how they learn to believe in themselves."

If she stays healthy and strong, King still has decades left to continue her work -- even though, as with everyone, much will remain when she is gone.

"I don't have any trouble with not finishing; the main thing is to get started and have those first layers or foundations built," she said. "Then you keep passing the baton down to the next generation, and they build another bridge. I love promoting the younger ones and mentoring them. But I also get mentored by them, even if they don't realize it.

"We've got to do good work through sports, because kids look up to sports people. Even if they don't know who you are, they kind of get it if the adults get excited."

Maybe that's what King can provide as much as any sports legend could ever hope to: a sense of excitement. About charitable endeavors. About the opportunities to help. And about the need to keep doing something athletic, no matter what it is.

"Recreation means to 'recreate' -- it's spiritual," King said. "Think about the actual word. It's fascinating what a beautiful word it is when you look it up in the dictionary."

Which prompts King, of course, to find her dictionary.

"Here we go," she said, reading aloud from the entry. "Recreation implies 'something that restores one's strength, spirit or vitality.' It talks about refreshment of one's mind or body after an amusing or stimulating activity. I think that's pretty neat.

"Strength, spirit and vitality -- what the heck is life all about if you don't have those things to give you the energy to live it?"

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at http://voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.