Sports History Files: Billie Jean King in the arena, Part 2

This week I’m devoting this blog to a three-part retrospective on Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” on Sept. 20, 1973. I’m particularly interested in her enduring public persona and how she embodies an ideal that has eluded other women’s sports leaders. Here’s Part 1 from Monday; the final part will be posted on Friday.

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“Billie Jean liked seeing her face on the cover of Ms., but she loved seeing it on the cover of Sports Illustrated more.”

— Grace Lichtenstein, author, “A long way baby: Behind the scenes in women’s pro tennis”

At the peak of her fame in the 1970s, Billie Jean King relished the spotlight like no sportswoman since Babe Didrikson Zaharias nearly two decades before.

King was captivating not just for blending feminism with her efforts to develop women’s pro tennis, but for her candor and sound bites, just as the Babe had done in a remarkable multi-sport career.

For her profile in its esteemed “SportsCentury” series, ESPN dug out a quote that was vintage King, as she described what it felt like to hit the perfect tennis shot:

When she hit the perfect shot, she would become ecstatic. “My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they’re wiggling, but it’s also just totally peaceful,” King said. “It’s almost like having an orgasm — it’s exactly like that.”

“My heart pounds, my eyes get damp, and my ears feel like they’re wiggling, but it’s also just totally peaceful. It’s almost like having an orgasm — it’s exactly like that.”

King was provocative, in word and deed, but as her playing career was drawing to a close, that spotlight glared unfavorably in her direction — with sexual relations as the culprit.

gamesetmatchJust as the Women’s Tennis Association she founded was starting to stand on its own, the viability of the tour — and of the fledgling women’s sports movement in the United States — was threatened by the travails of King’s personal life.

Men in powerful positions, or those riding the wave of fame, had been long accustomed to what King experienced when she called a press conference in 1981, not long after a spurned former lover went public with the news of an extramarital affair.

Marilyn Barnett’s allegations rocked not just the sports world, but a larger slice of American society coming to grips with the expanded role of women and the uncomfortable topic of homosexuality. The latter included King’s parents, who sat at her side, along with King’s husband Larry, as she explained deeply personal events.

It was an astonishing scene, just eight years after her triumph over Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes.” King lost most of her endorsement money virtually overnight, and sustaining corporate sponsorships and building a women’s sports business seemed in doubt.

As she notes in a new “American Masters” profile on PBS, King feared the Barnett revelations would undo much of what she and other women were doing in tennis, and as sports regulations for Title IX were gearing up. (The same year, Martina Navratilova was outed by novelist Rita Mae Brown, with whom she had been involved.)

The timing couldn’t have been worse, and this part of the King saga is the subject of a single chapter in Susan Wade’s 2011 book, “Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports.” King was typically matter-of-fact reflecting later:

“It may not be fair, but that’s the way it is. Anyone who’s in the limelight accepts it.”

In this book excerpt, Wade weaves the Barnett-King tale into the Riggs narrative, noting how Barnett’s conspicuous presence that night at the Astrodome flew just under the media radar, something unlikely to happen today.

What also wasn’t known publicly was that by the time she admitted her affair with Barnett, King had been involved with Ilana Kloss, who went from being doubles partner to life partner. It’s a relationship that continues today and that both women openly discussed in a 2006 HBO documentary, “Billie Jean King: Portrait of a Pioneer.” Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 5.35.00 PM

I write this not to dredge up some painful history, or to pile on to current media accounts delving into the same. King still speaks about the subject when asked, as she has become an elder stateswoman not just for women’s sports but also the gay rights movement.

What stumps me is that 40 years after Riggs, and with women athletes more fully celebrated in America, so few of them come close to being in a similar spotlight, much less appear to enjoy it. In the immediate years after King’s outing, women’s sports leaders had to fight old canards about homophobia that remain stubborn in sports despite greater social enlightenment today.

And critics of the media coverage of women’s sports continue to cry out that female athletes are invisible. While I think they’ve got a fair point, their complaints are tied to measuring minutes of air time and newspaper column inches that are unrealistic, given the contemporary demands of commercial media.

In my final post on Friday, I’ll continue with that assessment, which is not meant to be a criticism of anyone in particular. Culture and timing matter as much as any other factor.

King is a singular personality from the world of athletics who has been about so much more than sports — company she shares with Babe Ruth, Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali and only a few others. Like them, she was the right person to come along to do what she did when she did.

In anticipation of the 40th anniversary of the Riggs match, she sat down with Michelle Beadle for “Access Hollywood” in an interview that’s typically refreshing and intriguing.

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