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Billie Jean King on athlete activism: ‘Our job is to lead’

Billie Jean King, one of the most renowned and beloved athletes of our time, made her mark on the court as the top women’s tennis player in the world. Off the court, she continues her advocacy for equality. King joins Jeffrey Brown for a conversation at the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And speaking of activism in professional sports, we finish tonight with a legend who became well known for her voice and advocacy, tennis great Billie Jean King.

    Jeffrey Brown spent some time with her in Flushing Meadows, New York, for the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Open, which continues this week.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you remember that feeling of being in a big tournament like this?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Oh, do I. That's like walking down — that light switch goes on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

    The tournament just outside was the U.S. Open, this country's biggest stage for tennis. It's an event where Billie Jean King won 13 titles, including four singles. And it's held at a place that, since 2006, has been named for her, the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

    What do you feel when you walk through the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center? Does that…

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Oh, yes?

  • Billie Jean King:

    What do I feel?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Does it feel natural, ever?

  • Billie Jean King:

    No.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No?

  • Billie Jean King:

    It never feels natural.

    The one word that I always think about is responsibility, because I think…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Responsibility?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Yes, because I just feel like I'm one of the lucky ones. And I have a responsibility. I have a responsibility to the people in the sport, to people who try to make this world a better place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    It's precisely that focus, in addition to her abilities on the court, that made King one of the most renowned, influential and beloved athletes of our time.

    Between 1961 and 1979, she won 39 Grand Slam titles and was ranked number one in the world in women's tennis for six years. Off the court, she campaigned for pay equity and other issues on behalf of women athletes, and later for gay rights.

    She received the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her advocacy work from Barack Obama in 2009. Her awareness of injustice, she says, started early.

  • Billie Jean King:

    I had an epiphany when I was 12 that — I was sitting at the Los Angeles Tennis Club, and I started thinking about our little tiny sport of tennis and my tiny universe. And I thought, everybody who plays wears white shoes, white socks, white clothes, and everybody was white.

    And so I said, where's everybody else?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Many years later, much has changed. Today's leading American tennis player, of course, is Serena Williams. But not everything.

    Recently, French tennis officials criticized Williams for an outfit she'd worn at the French Open, a so-called catsuit Williams said helped her blood circulation after complications from a difficult childbirth.

    Billie Jean King publicly defended Williams.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Just stop. Just move on. There's more important things in this life, in this world.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Serena Williams has the cover of "TIME" magazine, and she's talking about postpartum depression. She's talking about breast-feeding.

    Does that tell you that the world has changed a bit?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Yes, because you can actually say what you're feeling and thinking.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, yes, for women athletes.

  • Billie Jean King:

    And everybody else goes — a lot of women who've been through similar situations go, me too. I have been through that. I hear you.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do you think that women have achieved what you wanted, what you had hoped for?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Oh, not yet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    No.

  • Billie Jean King:

    We're getting there.

    But one of the greatest things that happened to us in tennis is that we now, in all the four majors, have equal prize money, the men and women.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You mentioned the phrase me too.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right? Did any of that surprise you?

  • Billie Jean King:

    No, because we have technology now you can share your story.

    But MeToo isn't about women. MeToo is about abuse. So that means men, women or any gender can speak to their situation of abuse. MeToo is fantastic, because, again, people are sharing their stories. They're powerful.

    But there's other people out there that have experienced the same things. They don't feel alone.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    These were things that obviously were with us when you were…

  • Billie Jean King:

    I know.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    … when you were starting out.

    (CROSSTALK)

  • Billie Jean King:

    And I didn't know about all these things.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But people didn't feel like they could speak out?

  • Billie Jean King:

    No, because you get shame with a lot of things.

    And when you have shame, you usually keep it very much to yourself, and you don't understand it usually. You don't understand it. It's shame-based. And you just don't go there.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Another issue very much with us is activism by athletes.

    You tweeted recently. You were defending LeBron James when he got into it with President Trump. And you said, "Athlete activism can effect positive change and should be celebrated, not derided."

  • Billie Jean King:

    One of the things I understood is, I'm a tennis player, and what is tennis? Tennis is all over the world. I have an opportunity.

    Athletes should always be active. Our job is to lead. Our job is to not only lead within our sport, but to help others.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Sports today is such a big commercial venture. Do you see enough athletes speaking out?

  • Billie Jean King:

    No. I wish more athletes would speak out.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You do?

  • Billie Jean King:

    They're told not to often by their associations, by their unions, by their sponsors, and particularly about their agents. They tell them, don't say a word, just go out and play, get the check. You know that you are trying to sell your products to everybody.

    And I'm thinking, really? Is that what — do you want to — that's not being on the right side of history. Here, we have a unique opportunity.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    King herself lost endorsements in 1981, when she was outed as gay. I asked her about those earlier days.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Even if you thought you might be gay, you didn't talk about it, even among each other.

    I don't think people realized. You just didn't go there.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    But you had to deal with that, so in a personal life, but then under public scrutiny.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Yes, but we're just starting women's tennis, and I'm thinking, even if I'm having these mixed feelings and not understanding who I am, I can't talk about it. I don't know where I'm going with it. I don't know what I'm feeling.

    But now, if you're gay, you don't lose your endorsements.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes, but how did you…

  • Billie Jean King:

    Yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Billie Jean King:

    That's what it's about. It's better now. I can breathe again, because I see others not have to go through that. That's what it's all about, making the world a better place.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    I'm thinking, all these things we're talking about, all these things that you have been through on and off the court. I would imagine the one thing everybody still talks to you about is the Battle of the Sexes.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Oh, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    That's it?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Jeff, every single day, since that match, that has come up.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    In 1973, King beat the 55-year-old former number one and self-described male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs in an extraordinarily hyped spectacle.

    It was watched by a worldwide audience of more than 90 million people and dramatized last year in a film starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

  • Billie Jean King:

    You talk to people. They go, oh, I had this bet with my dad, or I had my wife or my husband.

    It's hilarious. One guy says, he knows a friend of his through his TV, through the window, goes, he made some big bets on it.

    And so there was a lot going on.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You hear this every day, huh?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Oh, yes, I hear it every day.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Billie Jean King:

    But I just think, when I wake up, because I still forget sometimes. I wake up in a cold sweat. And I'm like, I think I haven't played this match yet.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Really?

  • Billie Jean King:

    Oh, yes.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Wow.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Well, what if I hadn't played it yet?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes. Yes. Yes.

  • Billie Jean King:

    Yes. I go, oh, I won. Thank God. Thank you. Thank you. Whew.

    I know it would have been horrible, because…

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You are something. Do you…

  • Billie Jean King:

    But it pushed us forward.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    You're still so active. Are you slowing down? You ever going to slow now?

  • Billie Jean King:

    No. No, I keep yelling at all my people that I work with. I go, you know, in five years, I'm going to be 80. And what are we doing?

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Yes.

  • Billie Jean King:

    How we going to make a difference? Let's go.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Please do not slow down. That's our message to Billie Jean King.

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