Billie Jean King: Using Sports for Social Change

[Editor's note: This story was originally published in June, 2007 as part of a special series on Title IX and women in sports.]

She won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles, including a record 20 titles at Wimbledon, but Billie Jean King may be better known for her landmark victory over Bobby Riggs in 1973's "Battle of the Sexes" match.

The event had great symbolic value, coming just over a year after Congress achieved a landmark of its own: passage of the "Title IX, Education Amendments of 1972" legislation, or what is commonly known today as "Title Nine."

King, whose entire career has been focused on her stated goal -- "I wanted to use sports for social change" -- is uniquely qualified to comment on Title IX, and not just because of her win over the self-proclaimed "male chauvinist pig" Riggs.

"I was in college in the '60s," she explained. "Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, Charlie Pasarell and all these great players -- all the men -- had scholarships to college and I didn't. And the only reason I didn't was because of my gender."

As King explained, Title IX mandated that "if any government money was going to private or public high schools and colleges, (those schools) had to, for the first time in their history, make sure that both genders had equal opportunity." And for King, opportunity is what it's all about, "that both boys and girls have equal rights and equal opportunities in life."

The legislation is succinct: "No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance."

Those 37 words have had an enormous impact on American society well beyond sports. "What a lot of people don't understand is that Title IX was not just passed for sports," King pointed out. "In fact, sports was an afterthought." According to King, "Women doctors, lawyers, engineers -- all of them -- would never be where they are today without Title IX."

But it's on the playing field that Title IX is most visible. King explained that "1996 was the first time you really noticed it because the women's soccer players won the gold (at the Atlanta Olympics), the softball players won a gold, rhythmic gymnastics won a gold...the women's basketball won a gold. All these women's team sports came to fruition at the '96 Olympics and the only reason that happened, the only reason we won gold medals, is because of Title IX."

King was quick to counter the charge that the gains of Title IX have come at the expense of men's sports. "A lot of people are yelling at the women because it's our fault that some of the men's programs have been dropped. They never talk about it when a women's program is dropped." For instance, she pointed out, "Over a hundred women's gymnastics programs have been dropped too.

"Tennis has been dropped too. We've had over 500 programs dropped from college...most of them in the last 10 years."

King told the Stanford Report in April, "I think some colleges and universities have hidden behind the Title IX curtain to cut programs for both men and women when really it is a budget decision." And even with Title IX's mandates, she pointed out that full equality has yet to be reached. "Today, we are closer with women getting 45 percent of the college athletic scholarship dollars. But that remaining 5 percent represents almost $150 million in scholarship dollars. We need to close the gap."

King envisioned the equality mandated by Title IX -- on and off the playing field -- as being the catalyst to even greater social change. "If we ever get the gender card right, we're going to get a lot of other things right."

Getting those other things right will pay dividends well beyond individuals, said King. "Every human being is a natural resource. So when you deprive anybody of being the best that they can be, you really are not helping your country or the global situation."

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