Reporters can be jerks. No one knows that more than Billie Jean King.
Over the course of her groundbreaking career, King has fielded questions about everything from her sexuality to her politics to her decision to have an abortion. Before her famous Battle of the Sexes match against Bobby Riggs, Howard Cosell introduced her as "an attractive young lady" who could be Hollywood material if she let her "hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off."
King’s ability to deal with intense and sexist scrutiny – her ability to win 39 Grand Slams titles while promoting women’s tennis and the aspirations of women in general – is just one of the remarkable takeaways from "All In," her new autobiography.
The book – written with former Newsday columnist Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers – was released Tuesday, the day after four-time Grand Slam champion Naomi Osaka broke down and had to leave a news conference in Cincinnati. King, who was in SoHo Thursday to promote both her book and Wilson’s New York City pop-up museum and retail store, said she had not had a chance to watch the video of Osaka’s news conference.
King, 77, said she believes that tennis, and sports in general, have to do a better job of preparing young athletes to deal with pressures of playing and living in the spotlight. She said she is a strong believer in therapy and admires and supports both Osaka and gymnast Simone Biles for speaking out about mental health.
"It’s a double-edged sword with social media today," King said Thursday. "It’s so much easier to get what your thoughts are out but on the other hand people can get really negative and bully people . . . The kids take stuff so personally. That’s the one thing I would tell them. Don’t take things so personally or you are not going to survive.
"My generation, we understood we had to talk to the media every day. I’m not sure we’re doing a good job of teaching them what it means to be a professional athlete or entertainer. It doesn’t stop with just playing. That’s just one part of it. It’s important to communicate that the reason the players make so much money is the media throughout the years has promoted our sport. You can’t make the big bucks and expect to play in a bubble."
So much has changed since 1971 when King won the U.S. Open and took home $7,500, less than half of men’s winner Stan Smith’s $20,000 purse. And King is a big reason why.
When the U.S. Open kicks off in a little more than a week in Queens, both the men’s and the women’s winners will take home $3 million. Equal pay for equal work and it’s been that way for 48 years at the Open, thanks to King, who threatened to boycott the tournament in 1973 over the pay disparity.
That’s just one of the many challenges King details in her memoir, which is much more a personal portrait of the 20th century women’s movement than it is a sports book. King’s remarkable life story includes some pretty big historical events, including her testimony in front of a U.S. Senate subcommittee in 1972 that pretty much guaranteed that the recently passed Title IX would be used to end discrimination based on sex in school sports. In 1972, only one in 12 girls participated in high school sports. Today, more than 40 percent do and a recent survey of high-level female business executives found that 96 percent had participated in high school sports.
Yet, the most interesting part of the book is King’s personal transformation and journey.
King describes her childhood in a traditional, loving working-class family in Long Beach, California, in detailing how she discovered what she wanted to do with her life when a friend introduced her to tennis in fifth grade. She also details her personal struggles to conform to norms of the time, how she struggled to come to terms with her sexuality and the toll it eventually took on her physical and emotional health.
When King was outed in 1981 by a former lover who filed a palimony suit, she writes she lost $500,000 in endorsements and marketing deals and in the long run, she believes she lost millions. Among them was a $45,000 contract from Charleton Hosiery, "whose chief executive called me a ‘slut’ in a letter when he fired me," she writes.
King averted financial ruin by continuing to play two more years on creaky knees. She would reach two consecutive Wimbledon semifinals in 1982 and 1983, becoming the oldest woman in more than 60 years to reach that stage of the event.
Money should never be a problem for today’s top tennis players. Osaka, the two-time defending champion, is the highest paid women’s athlete ever having earned $55.2 million in endorsements according to sports business magazine Sportico.
If King was a different person, she could be bitter that she missed out on all that. Instead, she is energized, looking to the future as she battles for more inclusiveness in her sport and society and cheers on the next generation of players.
Writes King in her epilogue: "I’m not done fighting yet."