Billie Jean King on how Title IX became a life-changing force

Nowhere in the single sentence comprising Title IX, the 1972 Act that prohibits discrimination, denial of service, or exclusion based on sex in federally-sponsored educational programs or activities, does the word “sport” appear.

The law that opened up playing fields for millions of women never explicitly mentions its most famous application. It was a nuance in wording, a choice of words that almost didn’t happen, that made Title IX synonymous with disastrous changes for women athletes.

“The word ‘activity’ is in these 37 words. And because of that word, it’s really the only reason we have women’s sports today,” said immortal tennis player and women’s rights activist Billie Jean King.

“And everyone thinks it’s about women’s sport because we’re so visible. You don’t look at people sitting in a classroom.”

As she traveled to Washington to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the signing of Title IX, King recalled over the phone a conversation she had 15 years earlier with the late Indiana Senator Birch Bayh, who is credited with executing Title IX to lead the Senate. The late Patsy Mink of Hawaii, the first black woman elected to Congress, made it through the House of Representatives.

Bayh, whose advocacy for equality was inspired by his wife Marvella’s denial of admission to law school because of her gender, said King the final wording of Title IX was almost accidental.

“He said they almost didn’t include ‘activity’ in the law. That they couldn’t decide. ‘Do we even need it?’ ‘ said King. “And then, as a panacea, they said, ‘Let’s just leave it in. You never know.'”

Little did they know it would be life-changing for women who previously had to beg, borrow and improvise to exercise. “You don’t understand inclusion,” King said, “unless you’ve been excluded.”

Billie Jean King speaks before a Senate Education Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in November 1973 on gender equality.

Billie Jean King speaks before a Senate Education Subcommittee on Capitol Hill in November 1973 on gender equality.

(Associated Press)

King grew up in Long Beach, where the main library now bears her name. She played tennis at Cal State-LA, but there were no scholarships for female athletes and she held two jobs while in school. Her husband Larry had a tennis scholarship. So did a couple of prominent local male players, Arthur Ashe (UCLA) and Stan Smith (USC), who she would see at Wimbledon after playing in the NCAA tournament. She didn’t have that opportunity. Like most women back then, she couldn’t get her own credit card.

The disparity in prize money in tennis’ Open Era, which began in 1968, inspired King to advocate for change. King received £750 for winning Wimbledon that year. Rod Laver got 2,000. “Men controlled everything. Larry, my ex-husband, told me they were trying to get us out of tennis because all the money is theirs,” King said. “So they started dropping events and they had less and less prize money.”

In 1970, these snubs inspired a group of women to break away from established tennis authority as the “Original Nine” and start their own tour. King’s star power, the skills of promoter Gladys Heldman and sponsorship from Philip Morris kept the tour alive until it caught on and thrived. Two years later came Title IX, which has survived several attempts to water it down. A year later, the Women’s Tennis Assn. and King’s exhibition “Battle of the Sexes” against Huckster Bobby Riggs.

He had decisively defeated Margaret Court and was set to do the same to King on national television. It was carnival. But for King, who was carried to the Houston Astrodome court on a stretcher held by muscular, shirtless men, the occasion had a profound subtext.

“One of the reasons I was so keen to win this is because I didn’t want Title IX to be weakened,” she said. “I knew it was about social change and I knew we were only in our third year in women’s professional tennis and we were very young, in our infancy. And so I wanted to change the hearts and minds of the country to believe in Title IX and to believe that women deserve equality.”

Equal pay is now the norm across the four Grand Slam events, and Naomi Osaka and Serena Williams are among the highest-paid female athletes in the world. But they don’t earn as much as the highest-paid male athletes, and women’s professional leagues remain uncertain. King, who has a financial interest in the Dodgers, is working with Dodgers owner Mark Walter to explore the feasibility of a women’s pro hockey league, but that’s a long way off.

Billie Jean King scored a return in a fourth round match at Wimbledon in 1968.

Billie Jean King scored a return in a fourth round match at Wimbledon in 1968.

(Associated Press)

A major knock-on effect of Title IX, which opened up participation in sport for women and ended entry rates into education, was that it also opened doors beyond the dressing room. A 2018 study by Ernst & Young found that 94% of women who held C-suite (high-level) positions were former athletes. 52% played sports at the college level, compared to 39% of women at other levels of leadership. No longer excluded from the old men’s network that male athletes built and later used to advance professionally, women built their own networks and soaked up knowledge previously denied to them.

“It’s not about being number 1 or anything. It’s about learning the culture that men have created through business and sport, and it helps women tremendously,” King said. “Athletics and sports teach you how to be resilient, they teach you how to complete a project, they teach you how to lead, they teach you how to be a team player. … You learn that through sport, and men have always had that.”

Despite the achievements of women under Title IX, King’s quest for equality is not over.

“I think Title IX probably helped the suburban white girls the most, and then over the next 50 years we really have to focus on getting more and more girls of color,” she said. “We need to make sure that we have catered to girls with disabilities and developed this area. We need to help the LGGT community, especially trans athletes.”

She worries about attacks on gay rights, like the Texas GOP’s platform calling gay people “abnormal.” She worries about states that have recently passed legislation to limit or ban abortion. “It’s slipped back, especially with abortion rights,” she said.

When she helped found the WTA, she told her fellow players to always remember that they were in a vulnerable position because the pendulum of public opinion tends to swing from one extreme to the other. This is true today for any title IX derived gain.

“You always have to work hard, be diligent and be super vigilant and pay attention because things are changing,” she said. “I think everyone is focusing on that because of this anniversary and they’re starting to realize that it wasn’t just a sports thing. It was really about education and the classrooms and having equality.”

These 37 words changed the world. Equality diminishes none and elevates all, an important lesson King passed on to all of us, one that must be lived and fought for every day on the court, in the classroom and everywhere we go. Billie Jean King on how Title IX became a life-changing force

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