Thursday, March 21, 2019

Billie Jean King and Her Legacy: "Not Done Yet"

Just three weeks into my freshman year at the University of Notre Dame, I walked with my roommates to hear the Governor of Arkansas speak at the Stepan Center on campus. I knew that he was the Democratic nominee for President but I didn't know much if anything about him. I was aware that his campaign was picking up speed but I assumed George H. W. Bush would be re-elected to a second term. I shook his hand, I listened to his remarks and went back to Farley Hall. I was more excited about the first home football game against the University of Michigan taking place the next day, than I was in meeting this politician. Two months later William Jefferson Clinton was elected the 42nd President of the United States. 
I'm not really sure why I went. I suppose it felt like something I thought a college student should do....or so I had heard. In reality, I went because I could. I went because there was some momentum to go. I'm so grateful I rode that wave and did was Father Hesburgh long proclaimed as the secret to a good life: "just show up." College life is full of these types of opportunities. Students can hear speakers from around the globe in the auditorium, theater or lecture hall next door. Musicians, artists, politicians, Nobel laureates and as evidenced on Tuesday March 19, professional athletes who use their platforms to change the world are ready and willing to share their story, beliefs and hopes for young people. Such is the case with Billie Jean King, who spoke as part of the Silk Series speaker at the University of San Francisco.

Billie Jean King, who is arguably — as John McEnroe once said — the single biggest influence in the history of women’s sports, appeared at War Memorial Gym with he gold-medal-winning basketball player Jennifer Azzi. The discussion between them touched on issues of equity and influence, King’s childhood and her path to activism (Killion). I attended this talk with six of my female colleagues—a fellowship of coaches. We sat together, met for discussion after the event. Each one of us took notes, many cried tears of joy. Everyone left humbled and inspired. We are still smiling and still talking about this legend and this icon. Truly, she is one of America's best. And fortunately for us, when asked about her legacy she said "I'm not done yet." 
For the purposes of this blog, I would like to share what I learned and captured from my notes and the shared discussion. [The format I am using is a tool we teachers employ to frame an article, a lecture, etc. Identify what is new, surprising and disturbing]. Here we go.


  • As many people know, March is Women's History Month. I had no idea this year 's theme is "Celebrating Visionary Women." Hard to imagine someone more visionary that BJK. She broke with the tennis establishment in 1970, founding what eventually became the Women's Tennis Association. She served as the first President of this union (WTA). Because of their efforts, female players no longer earn $14 a day. In fact, in 1973, the US Open became the first major tournament to offer equal prize money for men and women.
  • I think it's important to learn about the mindset of a champion. BJK grew up in a home that never asked about the outcome of a game or match. Her parents, Bill and Betty wanted to know "how did it go?" instead of "did you win?" I hope parents in the audience wrote that down. Furthermore, she believes that "champions adapt." No wonder she was ranked number one in the world off and on over the course of ten years. She said "pressure is a privilege." Indeed. In an individual sport like tennis, more pressure—>more matches—>;more championships. I will try to remember that motto when I am under pressure. 
  • The third word out of King's mouth was "ball." She did not speak about her success as a tennis player. The emcee reminded the audience that she won 39 Grand Slam titles (29 singles and 10 doubles) but BJK did not address which one meant the most....what tournament was her favorite....who was her greatest opponent. I cannot tell you that I learned about the strengths and weaknesses of her game, but I know how much she loves athletics. She played softball and didn't even pick up a racket until she was 12 years old. Her brother pitched for 10 years in Major League Baseball and today she is part owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The audience learned more about her enthusiasm and love of sport than her accomplishments. Her enthusiasm makes her relatable; her humility? Admirable!
  • The song "Philadelphia Freedom" was written by her good friend Sir Elton John, ABOUT HER. This was probably my favorite story of the evening, because she shared it so nonchalantly. I've only seen a few people do that well (Springsteen in "Born to Run). You can read the full story here, but let me offer a snippet here. King said,
In the summer of 1974 we were driving to one of his concerts and he looked over at me in the back of the car (I can remember, he was on my right) and he said, “I want to write a song for you.” Of course, I didn’t think I heard him right. I turned scarlet red, I’m sure, and went, “Oh please. What??” And he goes, “No, I want to write a song, what are we gonna call it?” And I said [exasperatedly], “I don’t know!” Then he went, “How about ‘Philadelphia Freedom’?” Because I played for the [World TeamTennis] Philadelphia Freedoms and he used to come to watch our matches. 
As a music fan, I delight in knowing the origin story of a great song. I can't wait to hear "Philadelphia Freedom" at an unexpected time, in an unexpected place and pass along that story...

  • King is the first female athlete to earn the Presidential Medal of Freedom. President Obama conferred this honor to her in 2009. See the "Disturbing" section for more information.
  • Of the 32 athletes who have received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but two are women. I am happy, and not surprised to read that Pat Summit received this prestigious honor three years after BJK.

    A colleague asked if the Medal is conferred upon people posthumously. The answer is "yes." He suggested that it go to Althea Gibson, the first black woman to win Wimbledon. Although athletes must wear the color white at the All England Lawn and Croquet Club, the champions need not be. Tennis is truly an international sport and King has advocated for promotion and growth of the game world-wide.
The evening concluded with four questions from current students—which I was glad to see. She answered each one thoughtfully, honestly, and with humility and laughter. There wasn't an ounce of cynicism in her sharing. She referenced faith four times in the evening and reminded the President of USF that she's Protestant, not Catholic. "But I have a great pastor," she said.

There is a great quote attributed to Francis of Assisi—the Patron Saint of the City where I live and the University of San Francisco, I couldn't help but think of Billie Jean King. He said, “First do what is necessary, then do what is possible, and before long you will find yourself doing the impossible.” She has....and she did. Perhaps the best is yet to come. Thank you BJK!

Photo Credits
With Elton John
Visionary Women
All others are from the SF Chron

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