On April 7, renowned tennis player and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) rights activist Billie Jean King spoke at the Athenaeum. The title of the speech was “Pressure is a Privilege and Champions Adjust,” although King discussed a wide variety of topics, ranging from her efforts to promote women’s rights in tennis to promoting LGBT rights in Russia during this past year. The main points she emphasized were “relationships are everything,” “never stop learning, and never stop learning to learn,” and “be a problem solver.”
King opened by discussing her experience attending the 2014 Sochi Olympics, as President Obama selected her to represent the United States at the Russian games. King expressed concern about safety of the LGBT community in Russia, where the government has recently faced international criticism for gay rights abuses.
While in Russia, King met an 18-year-old boy who confided in her that he was gay and scared for his life because of his sexuality. In another instance, she heard the story of a group of childhood friends who went out together one night. When one of the friends came out to the group, the boy’s lifelong friends murdered him. King noted that the importance of these stories is recognizing that “every single one of you is an influencer.”
King went on to discuss the “sheroes and heroes” that had influenced her. These individuals included the woman who convinced her to play tennis, the teacher who helped her overcome her fear of public speaking, and Elton John, whose song “Philadelphia Freedom” was inspired by King.
King noted the importance of these relationships, saying, “Success in life is not a she thing, it’s not a he thing, it’s definitely not a me thing – it’s a we thing.” Superstars, King holds, are those players on the team that make everyone better. “That’s what makes a great champion.”
As for learning, King spoke to the fact that she calls mistakes “feedback” because of the more positive connotation. “So many people don’t realize how many times you lose to win.”
When asked if she ever wanted to quit tennis, King recalled the memory of the first time she played tennis. She told us that this memory perfectly describes the start of her passion for tennis and her goals in life. At age 11, King played tennis for the first time. She decided in that moment to become the top tennis player in the world, and announced confidently to her mother that she had discovered what she was going to do with the rest of her life.
King’s love of tennis took on a new meaning when, at age 12, she realized that the clothes, the balls, and even the people playing tennis were entirely white. The thought dawned on her, “where is everybody else?” This notion inspired King to start promoting equal opportunity through tennis, and thus King’s love of tennis grew in part from her desire to use it as a means to promote her social agenda.
Within tennis, King devoted herself to equalizing prize money for men and women and to helping women’s tennis become a professional sport. King and her fellow activists “want any girl born in the world… to have a place to play and compete and to make a living.” King helped professional tennis work towards this equality, and celebrates the immense progress that has been accomplished. King remarked on players like Serena Williams earning $2 million from a single tournament- more than King made in her entire career- as an example of this progress.
King also discussed the role that the “Battle of the Sexes” match played in the passage of Title IX, a historic educational amendment that prevents discrimination on the basis of sex. In the landmark match, King defeated male tennis player Bobby Riggs, and as she noted, was so devoted to the match because of its potential to impact Title IX. In discussing the victory, King recalled changing her strategy right before the commencement of the match. Rather than hitting hard balls, King decided to play the ball as softly as possible, thus forcing Riggs to use more energy in hitting the ball. At the end of the match, Riggs told King that he “underestimated her.”
King ended the speech by quoting OneRepublic’s “I Lived” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young,” saying, “I hope you stay forever young.” She proceeded to hit a series of signed tennis balls into the audience.