In the late 1990s, I could always draw dismissive snickers at ESPN production meetings — I was a commentator there at the time — when I lobbied for tennis champion Billie Jean King to be named that network’s number-one athlete of the twentieth century. In those days, even women sports wonks would roll their eyes and keep plugging for the likes of Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali.
My argument then: that while Billie Jean, like all those worthies, not only dominated her sport, sold tickets, and crossed over into popular culture, she also went well beyond them in fighting successfully for gender equality and against that slavish system of control called amateurism. Meanwhile, she was representing and inspiring half the population of the world.
That was then. Check the recent sports news, please, and grant me a recount. At 77, Billie Jean is still active in the progressive movement in sports. She still marches, speaks, and tweets, while her legacy remains a critical context for current stories like the one about a transgender reality TV star and former Olympic champion running for governor of California, the upset victory that delivered the Senate to the Democrats, and an impending Supreme Court decision that might upend college sports as we know it (on all of which, more to come).
In her heyday, she was a woman whose life was too often defined in tabloid terms — wearing the “wrong” clothes as a junior tennis player, implicitly endorsing cigarettes, being outed as a closeted lesbian in a blackmail scandal, and taking a star turn in the silly yet symbolically significant 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in which she beat aging male-chauvinist former tennis star Bobby Riggs before a TV audience of 50 million.
In this century, however, Billie Jean has emerged as a venerated foremother of American sports. As befits a legend, she’s generated at least four autobiographies. The latest, All In, written with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers (to be released this summer), will help make my case. Now, let me trace her influence through four contemporary sports-related stories, the most complicated and far-reaching first.
The End of Amateurism
Story one: Sometime next month, the Supreme Court is expected to deliver an opinion in NCAA v. Alston. It’s an athlete-led flank attack on the present system of compensating college players — basically through “scholarships” that cover only tuition and living expenses — as a violation of antitrust laws.
The Supremes are sure to offer a narrow opinion because this particular case focuses only on a cap of about $6,000 on various education-related awards that universities are allowed to bestow on athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with its 1,268 universities, colleges, conferences, and associations, imposed that cap in a relentless attempt to avoid expensive competition among its schools. The greatest fear of its top officials: a burst of uncontrolled bidding wars for high-school athletic talent. After all, the NCAA was created in 1906 to enrich itself through the unpaid labor of “student-athletes,” of whom the organization estimates there are now about 480,000.
As the justices prepare their decision, the NCAA business model is about to blow up anyway, with new state laws in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Mexico that will allow such athletes to be paid by private companies for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA, afraid of losing control of its monopoly, is rushing to loosen its own restrictions to stay ahead of a potential tidal wave of change. Ironically, it may soon find itself at cross purposes with its own Supreme Court case.
All of this feels like nothing less than the welcome death throes of a scam religion called Amateurism, which has been defined as playing games for love, not money — or not your own money, anyway. Think of it as the original sin of American sports. No one should be surprised, then, that it came out of slavery. The first celebrated athletes in America were unpaid Black slaves who represented their plantations as boxers, rowers, and jockeys. Their owners gambled on their skills against slaves from other plantations in bare-knuckle fights, as well as horse and crew races. When sports became prestigious and profitable, white people took over playing many of the games.
Even though, in the last century, Olympic and college athletes, along with golfers and tennis players, became worldwide stars, they remained tightly controlled servants of “Shamateurism,” as it was dubbed then. This was the practice of denying such athletes the right to accept money as gifts or for expenses, much less as fees for appearances or endorsements.
Meanwhile, coaches, officials, tournament executives, colleges, and corporations raked in the big sports bucks, maintaining their dominance in part by slipping the stars under-the-table payments. Colleges gamed the system with “scholarships” and no-show jobs, while Olympians wore branded shoes that came with cash stuffed under their innersoles. It was all about keeping jocks on the plantation. No wonder the phrase “million-dollar slave” came into vogue as a complaint against the bondage of college rules and sometimes pro contracts, too. Sometimes, it was even used as a mocking pejorative by those who held the chains.
Enter Billie Jean Moffitt, a daughter of the working class — her father was a firefighter, her mother sold Avon products — and a prodigy in home-made shorts. She seems never to have forgotten the humiliation of being pushed out of a Southern California tournament group picture because she wasn’t wearing a white tennis dress.
But before she was done, she got payback. In the revolutionary year of 1968, spurred by her agitation, tennis finally entered an “open” era in which amateurs and pros played against each other (even if the pros still took the cash). This led to the sport’s professionalization and eventually to a movement toward player independence in all sports, part of the “athletic revolution” that informs the Supreme Court case and those five state decisions.
The Equal-Pay Gap
Story two: It’s probably no surprise that the professionalization and commodification of sports — the Olympics loosened its rules in the late 1970s to keep restive athletes in the games — benefited men far more than women. Their prize and expense money was simply much higher.
Again, the change began in tennis, led by Billie Jean. In 1970, the men’s winner of the Italian Open received $3,500 in prize money and the women’s champion (guess who?) got $600, a typical disparity of the times. Billie Jean then led eight other American and Australian women players in rebellion against the ruling United States Lawn Tennis Association, which promptly suspended them. But the women’s pro tour they founded, eventually called the Virginia Slims Circuit (with its slogan, “You’ve come a long way, baby”), soon enough became the centerpiece of a new Women’s Tennis Association.
There was a cost, however. By sharing that slogan, women’s tennis and Virginia Slims cigarettes became inseparable in the public mind. Was the seeming trade-off worthwhile? There was a spike in women’s participation in sports — and in lung-cancer cases. Billie Jean has maintained that the players never directly endorsed smoking. As weak as that justification may seem to many, it was also true that even in a boom time for sports, no other major corporations were willing to sponsor women’s tennis.
Even today, that money gap between men and women has not disappeared. On “Equal Pay Day” last March, members of the U.S. women’s soccer team joined President Joe Biden and Dr. Jill Biden in discussing that very disparity. That team, far more celebrated and successful (as the winner of four World Cups) than the men’s team, recently lost a wage discrimination suit against soccer’s equivalent of Billie Jean’s ancient nemesis, the United States Lawn Tennis Association. The team plans to appeal.
At about the same time, it was revealed that there was a gap of about $13 million between the money the NCAA budgeted on men and women’s living conditions, medical support, and training facilities for its annual basketball “March Madness” tournaments.
Billie Jean was immediately on the case with a video tweet calling for equality, for “the same…[as] we’re all in this together.”
The Original 9
Story three: The “Original 9,” as Billie Jean and her tennis rebels came to be known, offered a singular lesson to the male-dominated sports world — women could act collectively, courageously, and aggressively against the establishment, despite both ongoing oppression and the suppression of their history.
Women’s sports began its great awakening as an athletic off-shoot of the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. At the time, female Olympic medals became as valuable as men’s when it came to propagandizing for the physical and moral superiority of the “Free World,” as led by Washington. At home, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects against discrimination based on sex in education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance, began to be applied to girls’ high-school and college sports. That would affect millions of young women and help bring political activism to their sports.
Meanwhile, in the pro ranks, the most prominent daughters of the Original 9 would be the players of the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the marginalized women’s version of the NBA. While men regularly left college and began their pro careers as instant millionaires, women who turned pro regularly found that they needed second jobs in the off-season.
But it was in the WNBA, not the NBA, that players, even whole teams, would launch years-long protests against racism, gun violence, and police brutality, which would lead the way to the NBA Black Lives Matter wildcat strikes of 2020. The men, in other words, would find their moral courage in the women’s example and that example, in turn, can be traced back to… of course, you know the name I’m about to use… Billie Jean King.
The surprise upset victories of Warnock and the other Georgia Democratic Senate candidate, Jon Ossoff, would even the odds in a previously Republican-dominated Senate. Typically, Billie Jean congratulated the victors with a tweet, quoting from the late Representative John Lewis: “The vote is precious. It is the most powerful non-violent tool we have in a democratic society, and we must use it.”
The Battle of the Sexes Revisited
Story four: The technique men have traditionally used to cancel women athletes (particularly the ones who could beat them) was to declare them ersatz women; that is, either biological men or lesbians. Billie Jean did not escape such rumors and they turned out to be true. While her first biography extolled her early marriage to Larry King as a fulfilling physical relationship with a liberated soulmate, later bios would describe their union as more of a friendship and business partnership.
At the time, she was actually in an increasingly troubled affair with a hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett. In the end, Barnett threatened to out Billie Jean and that threat, in turn, exploded into a sensational 1981 trial that left the Kings in financial ruin. Millions of promised dollars in endorsement contracts would promptly vanish and her most innovative project, World Team Tennis (now known as Mylan WTT), an innovative league of touring pros who also give clinics to local players, would be damaged.
As a result, Billie Jean needed to keep playing beyond her prime, an ironic comedown for someone who had been transformed into a worldwide symbol of emerging womanhood when she beat Bobby Riggs in their 1973 televised “Battle of the Sexes” spectacular. It may only have been a tennis match between the 29-year-old King and her 55-year-old opponent, but it had been promoted as a gender reckoning.
And even that match of theirs would come to seem quaint in the decades to follow thanks to Bruce Jenner. A handsome, 27-year-old New Yorker, he became the world’s greatest all-around athlete by winning the 1976 Olympic gold medal for the decathlon, a test of 10 demanding sports. He would appear on a Wheaties cereal box and eventually marry into the Kardashian family.
Then, in 2015, Jenner would help set in motion the sex/gender story of the first decades of the new century by renaming herself Caitlyn. She would, in other words, come out as a trans woman. This year, she even declared herself a Republican candidate for California and, bizarrely enough, announced, in the manic fashion of present-day Trumpian Republicans, that she did not believe transgender girls should compete on girls’ teams. In other words, she cancelled herself.
America’s Sports Foremother
Billie Jean, who had, of course, backed Caitlyn in her transition, went on to join a vanguard of women stars supporting transgender athletes — and no, she never ran for the governorship of anything. In short, her stands, personal and political, offer a remarkable progressive roadmap for my own 60-odd years covering sports. The very first time I met her, in the late 1960s, she was only 26 and already under attack. “Almost every day for the last four years,” she complained, “someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, when are you going to have children?’ I say, ‘I’m not ready yet.’ They say, ‘Why aren’t you at home?’”
She responded that she would answer that question this way: “Why don’t you go ask Rod Laver why he isn’t at home? I’m a breadwinner, too.” Laver was then the best men’s player.
She was mocked and berated for her stances in much the same way that, at the time, Black athletes who protested unfair treatment were marked as “ungrateful Negroes.” Blacks were told to go back to Africa, women like Billie Jean to the kitchen.
Through her activism, serious introspection, protests, even rants, and more recently Twitter volleys, Billie Jean has continued to adapt to her times. She told me recently that, through therapy, she had come to understand how she had used sports competition as an escape from everyday life, as “a way of putting off all the issues that need eventually to be addressed,” including coming out to her aging parents.
Once she stopped playing tennis regularly, she said, she found herself substituting binge eating for the addiction of competitive matches.
“You don’t need to face fears when you can focus on the next match,” was how she put it.
In her late sixties, she began revising the symbolism of the Battle of the Sexes, an event adapted for a 2017 film starring Emma Stone. Now, however, she described it to me in terms more fitting for the sensibilities of her fellow boomers — less a battle of the sexes than, in her phrase, an alliance of the ages.
In retrospect, she said, the late Bobby Riggs had not been as much a masculine symbol to be bested as a role model for successful aging and for the principle of never giving up. She won, she added, because she took him seriously and respected what he had done in his past. He wasn’t some hustler to her still looking for his moment, but a player who had won the singles, doubles, and mixed doubles at Wimbledon in 1939, and so could never be taken for granted.
The ultimate lesson, she declared on the cusp of her own old age, was respect your elders.
Now in her late seventies, one of those very elders (with America’s premier tennis center named after her), and an icon of sports, women’s rights, and LGBT rights, she seems ever more clearly number one — and our foremother.
This column is distributed by TomDispatch.