Christine Brennan: September 20, 1973: the day Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. It was the first time I had ever seen a woman beat a man at anything. You're in the Astrodome, the match is about to start. What are you thinking?
Billie Jean King: The women’s tour was only in its third year in 1973. It was the height of the women’s movement. A woman could not get a credit card on her own without a male signing. Vietnam was cooling down, Watergate was heating up. It was a very tumultuous time. Title IX had been passed June 23, 1972, which was very important to me at the time and to many of us, and I really wanted to start changing hearts and minds to match up with that. I wanted men and women to help each other.
I thought about history. I thought about how can this be a positive experience? How can I make a change? How can I make a difference that will make people want to help each other? I thought what the consequences could be if I lost. I thought we could lose our women’s professional tour. I thought we'd go backwards in many, many ways from a cultural point of view. I thought if I could win women would believe in themselves more—that maybe men would look at us a little differently, that they would just start thinking differently.
Brennan: There was such a push for equality where other sports still don’t have what you were doing back a generation ago.
King: My generation made a huge push to mentor. The ones who really started women's professional tennis knew we had to mentor the future, and I always wanted to try to keep the generations connected. We spent an extraordinary amount of time with Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert, and we said to them, "You have to spend the time that we're giving you with the next generation." Usually by the third generation it becomes a "me" generation instead of a "we" generation.
Brennan: You are such a role model and such an icon for women even as you have worked so hard to have the genders together in so many ways. What are your thoughts at this point on the advancement of women?
King: You have to see it to be it. You need role models. You need people who achieve things, and all across the board.
Brennan: So how are we doing?
King: Whether it is science, technology, engineering, whatever—if you don't see enough people who look like you, then you don’t think you have a chance. It’s very important that we make that possible, and women are very far behind still in engineering.
Audience Question: I’m curious about the potential new young Americans we can root for in tennis. There don't seem to be very many. Why?
King: Sports are a microcosm of society. Nothing's happened to our tennis or our sports in competition with the rest of the world. I didn't have to compete with the rest of the world as a player. We didn't compete against the rest of the world. Now we have to be able to compete against everybody and the rest of the world.
Brennan: Should we be finding and identifying young talent?
King: Here's my mantra: when a child signs up for tennis, he or she is put on a team immediately, the very first moment. I remember the first time I ever played tennis or went and got instruction, and it changed my life. I want to make that kind of impact on a child. I'd put them on a team, I’d put the children in a circle, I’d say you name your team. The socialization process starts immediately with the children. Now they're equal, because I put them in a circle because it's equal, and then I say what do you want to name your team? And they name the team, and I'd have the children do everything as a team.
Audience Question: You’ve been very outspoken for LGBT rights. You’ve made a huge difference, and I want to thank you.
King: I grew up in a homophobic family, so I was very homophobic myself. I was afraid. It wasn’t that I was ever against gays, lesbians, bisexuals, or transgenders. I was always for them, but I was scared. But any time something is shame-based, as all of us know, it doesn't work. Something's not right. I had an eating disorder, and I was really in a bad way when I was about 50, 51. I wasn't getting it right, and I finally went to the Renfrew Center in Philadelphia, where they have an eating disorder place, and I remember walking across this line in the asphalt, and I just remember thinking, "When I step over this line I’m going to surrender, because I have to get well. I have to get comfortable in my own skin. Somehow I have to get there.” And that was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I just surrendered, and we had group therapy on the hour by the hour.
My therapist said something to me that changed everything. She said, "When are you going to take your power back?" I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "You've given all your power to your parents and to everybody else." That was a teachable moment. I must have been finally open to what I needed to do, because she zinged right in there, and that changed my whole life. Finally, at 51 years of age I took my power. It was a really long, hard process for most of my life. I’m 68 now and only got comfortable when I was 51. It was really an amazing journey, so how can I not try to help someone else be more comfortable in their own skin, and why can't our LGBT community be protected as much as anybody else in our community?