When the question regarding the gender imbalance in the night schedule at Roland Garros came wafting out from the assembled press corps, Billie Jean King was more than ready.
While inviting the Grand Slams to require women to play best-of-five, she argued persuasively that both men and women should play best-of-three set matches. That evolved into a plea, with the consumer in mind, to ban opposing players from wearing matching outfits and to initiate player’s names spelled out on their backs, perhaps even numbers like other professional sports. A long but typically cogent dissertation on marketing and media relations followed and, then, somewhere past 900 words, this:
“Don’t get me started. You have heard this from me before. It’s not new information.”
Uh, too late. King is still agitating and innovating on behalf of women in athletics. It’s been 50 years since Title IX became law on June 23, 1972 in the United States, prohibiting sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funding. It’s quite possible that King has been its most vocal – and effective – advocate.
“I was a pre-Title IX student-athlete at Cal-State Los Angeles, and I thought I was living large,” King said in a recent video. “I had two jobs to help cover my school expenses, yet just a few miles down the road, Arthur Ashe had a full-ride tennis scholarship at UCLA. And Stan Smith had a full ride at USC.
“All three of us went on to become the No.1-ranked tennis players in the world.”
In 1971, the year before Title IX, fewer than 300,000 girls participated in high school sports, one in 27. Twenty years later, the total approached 3 million, approximately one in 2½. The latest number, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation, is 3.4 million.
Because of Title IX and the movement it spawned, opportunities for women in college athletics are no longer the exception – they are the rule.
Danielle Collins played four years at the University of Virginia, leading the Cavaliers to a pair of national titles, and won the Honda Sports Award in 2016 as the nation’s best female tennis player. She’s currently ranked in the Hologic WTA Tour Top 10.
Australian Astra Sharma helped lead Vanderbilt University to the 2015 NCAA title and was named the 2017 SEC Player of the Year before graduating in 2018 with a degree in Medicine, Health and Society. Earlier this year, she earned a Master’s Degree in Applied Physiology and Kinesiology in a partnership between the University of Florida and the WTA.
Eleven-time Grand Slam champion Lisa Raymond (six titles in women’s doubles, five in mixed), received an athletic scholarship to the University of Florida. She won the NCAA singles title in 1992 and 1993 led the Gators to their first NCAA title in 1992.
Two decades earlier, a lawsuit was initiated by Peachy Kellmeyer, a talented junior player who had risen to the Director of Physical Education at Marymount College. Frustrated that the modest scholarships she managed to provide her players were considered illegal by the Association for Intercollegiate Athletics for Women, Kellmeyer and her school were part of what became a February 1973 landmark decision.
“It demonstrated that any discrimination against women athletes would not be tolerated by the courts,” said Kellmeyer, who just retired after 48 years with the WTA. “Yes, you could say that the litigation put teeth into Title IX legislation.”
Perhaps just as important in retrospect was King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in the “Battle of the Sexes” later that fall. A television audience of 50 million and a Houston Astrodome crowd of 30,000 watched King defeat the self-described male chauvinist 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
“In that year, in 1973, so many things got initiated by Billie Jean,” Kellmeyer said. “She made you feel like if something was wrong, don’t talk about it – make it right. Even to this day it’s true. She pushes you and she pushes you to dream big. You can’t say enough about her.”
King believes that Title IX is one of the most important pieces of legislation of the 20th Century.
“The 37 words of Title IX prohibit sex discrimination at educational institutions that receive federal funding," King said. “Without Congresswoman Patsy Mink, Congresswoman Edith Green, Senator Birch Bayh and Dr. Bernice Sandler, Title IX might not have become law. They are my sheroes and my hero.”
There is, King will tell you (if you give her any kind of opening), more to be done.
According to a recent Women’s Sports Foundation study, women account for nearly 60 percent of the college population, but only 43 percent of college athletic opportunities. At this year’s Internazionali BNL d'Italia in Rome, men’s winner Novak Djokovic received $882,296, compared to $412,002 for women’s winner Iga Swiatek. And then there are those night matches at Roland Garros. Only one of the 10 sessions featured a woman’s match, Frenchwoman Alize Cornet’s victory over 2017 French Open champion Jelena Ostapenko.
“You have got to figure it out and you want to give equal opportunity to both genders,” King said of the primetime matches. “Always. They should have the same amount of women’s matches as they do men’s.
“If we keep treating us like second-class citizens we will stay second-class citizens.”
In other words, we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.