Perched on a black armchair in front of huge black curtains, Billie Jean King could not have been more colorful.
Highly animated, chipper and enthusiastic, the world renowned tennis player, women’s rights champion and changemaker held the rapt attention of an audience of 800 faculty, students, alumni and visitors.
Her conversation with moderator Jennifer Azzi, former USF women’s basketball coach and Olympian, took place on March 19 as part of the Silk Speaker Series. It could almost have had a live laugh track.
“Everyone’s an influencer”
King’s message to the audience? “Everyone’s an influencer.” This mantra was present in discussions of her life and accomplishments, and those of people around her. At one point, she spontaneously called to the audience “Please vote!” — one of many direct calls to action.
The tennis legend’s influence stems from not only her success as a player on the court but also from her challenging what it means to be an athlete. King not only became a tennis champion when men did not want to hear what she had to say, but was the first female athlete to win over $100,000 in prize money. She also created the Women’s Tennis Association with nine other female tennis players — all of whom she named during the talk.
She did not stop there. King spoke about taking on the systems making it difficult for women to be successful: “Girls are taught not to ask for what we want,” she said. “Boys are taught to be brave; girls are taught to be perfect.”
Talking about how this manifests in the girls they have coached, Azzi recalled not understanding why a female player would hesitate when offered the opportunity to start in a game. King reacted with loud “OOOH, OOH’s,” throwing her hands up in exasperation.
“We need to have each other’s backs!” King said. In sports, she said, women can learn to trust themselves, have confidence and be a team player — all things that translate to real-world success. “I use what I learned in sports every day,” she said.
But teaching women not to be obstacles to themselves does not get rid of systemic obstacles in place, so King is a huge proponent for women learning about the institutions behind the obstacles.
“Men created systems for themselves, and women need to learn how to navigate them,” King said, who took a political angle in her career when she campaigned for the passage of Title IX, which forbade discrimination on the basis of sex for women in educational and federally-funded institutions.
More than just sports equity
King’s advocacy for equity expands beyond gender. She was able to list the exact difference in pay that women of different racial groups receive compared to their male counterparts — entirely memorized.
Azzi also brought up an incident involving Serena Williams in the last year’s women’s U.S. Open final, in which she was accused of cheating, then penalized for being frustrated at the chair umpire’s rulings and the result of the high-stakes game. King, who met Serena and Venus when they were 10 years old and remains close with them, said the umpire, Carlos Ramos, “didn’t have a high emotional IQ.”
“There is centuries of anger there from Serena,” King said. All the umpire needed to do was respect that.”
King has also advocated for the LGBTQ+ community, a subject that was largely missing from her conversation with Azzi.
Eli Ramos, president of Prism, USF’s LGBTQ+ student group, was in attendance and wished they had heard more about this component of King’s legacy.
“They kept glossing over the fact that she’s a lesbian, for one,” Ramos said in an email interview. Ramos brought up a question asked by a student at the event about biological essentialism, the idea that there are core differences between “biological” men and women. “BJK has advocated for transgender players like Renee Richards, so it’s wild to me that they let a question about biological essentialism…slip past.”
Ramos felt the question was not directly answered by King.
Backstage before the event, King answered questions from USF athletes, including women’s tennis captain Margarita Treyes, who asked King how young people who have not reached King’s level of success can make themselves heard.
“She said, ‘Keep trying your best and someone will listen,’” Treyes said. “She remind[ed] me that smaller actions do have big impacts on people. Just a simple conversation could still change the life of others.”
King made it clear she intends to keep going, too. Mylene Martin, the communications coordinator for the U.S. Tennis Association Northern California region, was impressed by the passion King demonstrated and inspired by the work that still needs to be done. In an interview after the event, she pointed out that only the four major “grand slam” tennis tournaments have equal prize money for men and women, and the rest do not.
“She’s 75 years old,” Martin said of King. “The passion that she still has for what she’s doing is pretty amazing. To her, that’s her calling, that’s what she was meant to do, and she will just continue to do more.”