Billie Jean King’s Enduring Contribution: Tolerance

Billie Jean King’s Enduring Contribution: Tolerance

After a historic career, an undeniable win and a recently released movie about that win, Billie Jean King’s contributions to society continue to shine today.

Updated: Oct. 3, 2017 • 1:56 PM ET

The latest chronicle of Billie Jean King's historical career has come in the form of a film.

“Battle of the Sexes”, the movie chronicling the 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that’s currently in theaters, begins in a blur. A rainbow palette of swirls and a tennis player caught up in the midst overwhelms viewers. We suspect that player is the main character of the movie, King, played admirably by Emma Stone.


As the film unfolds, and surely by its end, viewers are quite clear that the movie directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris has bounced far beyond Wimbledon or the Match of the Century, instead telling a tale of King’s battle for tolerance in a sports world slow to change.


At first, the audience quickly understands Ms. King’s enduring connection with a tennis ball. That never changes. The tennis balls, though, correspond metaphorically as a platform on which to stand and espouse her calls for equality in sport and beyond.  


“Tennis is her true love,” Larry King, Billie Jean’s husband, warns Marilyn Barnett, the women’s league’s hairdresser and Billie Jean’s maiden step into her authentic sexual identity, in a chilly-looking hotel hallway. “If you get between her and her game, you’ll be gone.”


King has to learn that growth of her game depends on choices concerned not only with tennis, but with those that surround the confines of traditional marriage: one man married to one woman.


Riggs, though, is thrilled with King’s torment. He sees fame and fortune, or so it seems on the surface of his character enacted by a competent Steve Carell. 


Riggs isn’t an in-depth man. He’s a former Wimbledon champion turned hustler and compulsive gambler, who has also lost his way in love and life. The break with his wealthy wife, Priscilla Wheelan, depresses him. Yet he buoys himself with more and more gambling risks, the biggest being his brazen coaxing of King to play him at the Houston Astrodome on Sept. 20, 1973. The extravaganza was viewed by some 90 million people worldwide and raised the consciousness of gender equality.  


King didn’t only extricate herself from her marriage to Larry. Before the event with Riggs, she extricated herself along with eight other women, called The Original Nine, from the male-led United States Lawn Tennis Association, known today as the United States Tennis Association. The contract they signed was sealed when each woman paid $1 to World Tennis Magazine publisher Gladys Heldman, artfully played by Sarah Silverman in the film.


The misogynistic U.S.L.T.A. the band of women left behind had refused to pay equal prize money to men and women. In fact, when King won Wimbledon for the first time in 1968, she expected the same money the tournament gave male champion Rod Laver: £2,000. However, she only received £750.


Sniggered at behind their backs, Heldman soon secured Virginia Slims tobacco company as their title sponsor and the Virginia Slims Tour was born. “You’ve come a long way, baby,” the company’s promotional line, energized the group who self-promoted and sacrificed any semblance of home life to engage would-be fans as they criss-crossed the country stuffed into a couple cars.  


That tour went up in smoke long ago, but not the spark of spirit that lead to its formation: equal pay. In 1973, the same year King defeated Riggs in the Battle of The Sexes, she threatened to boycott the U.S. Open over pay disparity. America’s major succumbed to King’s stand and became the first Grand Slam to pay equal prize money to men’s and women’s singles champions.


Today, all Grand Slams pay equal prize money for all categories of play.


Both King and Riggs had separated from their spouses before their acclaimed match in Houston. Yet, each learned that alone isn’t the same as separate. King’s game fell apart in the weeks that lead up to that renowned day in sport. Only when Barnett saw an excerpt from a television sports show about King’s probable downfall against Riggs did she up and leave her job to join King once again. The film doesn’t explicitly show that their reunion triggered King’s concentration and skill against Riggs, but the assumption is plausible.


After the biggest loss of his life, Riggs sat alone in the locker room to contemplate his fate deep inside the bowels of the Astrodome. As darkness descended on his character, rendered well by a tight shot of him sitting on a bench in the dimly lit locker-room, his wife, from whom he had been separated, Wheelan, appears. They smile and seemingly reconcile their differences. 


King, too, ended up in the locker room after the match. She bawled her eyes out in what seemed to be revelatory moments. This scene was also rendered by tight shots to her face. She expected to win, yet the experience of winning wasn’t quite the same. 


“I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn’t win that match,” King later said via her website. “It would ruin the women’s [tennis] tour and affect all women’s self-esteem.”


Whether King reconciled with her husband isn’t revealed in the movie. Yet, Larry as coach and confidant was. He was just what King needed in 1973, facilitating her coming out and in more ways than the common interpretation allows. He facilitated her win, encouraging her to keep her eyes on the prize: defeating Riggs and what that would mean for women’s tennis and tennis overall. 


“To beat a 55-year-old guy was no thrill for me,” King said. “The thrill was exposing a lot of new people to tennis.”


Her winner-take-all $100,000 prize money in Houston was the largest pot of cash awarded at any tennis sporting event to date. But the money wasn’t central to her cause. It never had been, although she is a wealthy woman today. 


King had to separate from the fairytale life she knew and was raised believing in. At the end of the movie, she was on her way to making tough, risky decisions, while tossing aside worthless confines. Those moves clarified her world and ours. 


Perhaps Ted Tinling, played admirably by Alan Cumming, lent the broadest implications for King’s actions. Although a visionary in his own right as a clothing couturier — he made all her tennis outfits — his prescient words brought the movie to a neat close.


“Times change,” he said to Billie Jean.“You should know — you changed them.”

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