There are few figures in the world of sports who are as immediately identifiable as Billie Jean King. Not only has she been one of the top tennis players to ever step on a court, but her activism in women’s tennis was what resulted in changes in all women’s sports that opened the door for Title IX.
King is now adding television host to her massive mountain of accomplishments with “Groundbreakers,” a two-hour documentary slated to debut at 8 p.m. Nov. 21 on Valley PBS. The film weaves together the first hand stories of eight sports legends as they discuss how their own struggles and achievements shaped their sport.
The interviews pair an athlete at the top of her game today with an athlete whose achievements helped pave the way for those who followed. Those pairings include Billie Jean King and flag football star Diana Flores; basketball legend Nancy Lieberman and Olympic gold snowboarder Chloe Kim; soccer star and World Cup winner Julie Foudy and Olympic gold gymnast Suni Lee; and track and field world-record holder Jackie Joyner-Kersee with four-time tennis Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka.
King’s place in sports history is well documented, but it is something she leaves to others to measure.
“I don’t think about it. I think others will decide what my legacy is. Not really concerned with that. Our job, I think, as an older generation, is to help the younger generation move on and be our leaders and do all the things that we did when we were their age,” King says. “It’s just amazing what’s been going on. And I think women’s sports is starting to be at a tipping point. This is what I’ve waited for my whole life, and I’m glad I’m still alive to see this day, actually.”
The changes started in June 1972 with the passage of Title IX, a 37-word provision in the 1972 Education Amendments that guaranteed all people – regardless of their gender – equal access to federally funded programs. This bill opened the floodgates for young girls to participate in sanctioned sports activities nationwide.
Topics also addressed in the documentary include equitable pay and treatment, sexist policies, mental health and the perseverance, pain and progress of women who dared to challenge the system and defy conventional norms. “Groundbreakers” celebrates the advancements of women in sports and society, while also revealing the generational mentorship and community building that has fueled the progress made alongside the ongoing pursuit of equality for women everywhere.
King knew early in her life that she wanted to do more than just play tennis.
“When I was 12 years old, I promised myself that I would fight for equality the rest of my life. So, I think it depends on what I’m doing at the time,” King says. “Sometimes, if I’m on the court playing tennis, I’m tennis, which I’m not doing anymore, but when I was off the court working and trying to change things, then I was the activist.”
“But I love being both. I’d love to show that athletes and women athletes can help change and positive change. Yeah, I love it. It gives us power. It gives us leadership. It gives us all the things that are important in life to feel confident, to have, you know, have a great life. I’ve had an amazing life because of being in sports,” King continued.
King is very willing to talk to young athletes who are looking for advice. She remembers what it was like to be young and the focus of a massive amount of media attention.
King turned to older players on the tennis circuit for their help during those days. She also was able to talk to her brother, former major league pitcher Randy Moffitt.
Moffitt’s support became crucial when King was outed by the media. She was told that talking about being gay with the press would have meant the end of her touring days. King points out that she was also dealing with homophobic parents.
“It’s the only area I must say that we had difficulties, but I’m big on telling the truth. So, when I was outed, my P.R. person and my lawyer did not want me to say, they wanted me to deny it,” King says. “I said, ‘I can’t do that.’ We had a press conference, and I told the truth, and you could hear a pin drop, because I knew everybody in the media. They were my friends. It was a very different world then and it was tough.”
“So, you just start over,” continued King. “I just said ‘You know, I’m going to start over, but now I can start living my truth.’ Which took a while, took a long time. But today if a sports person comes out they usually, the President of the United States calls them, they have, they make more money, more endorsements. They get more. It’s fantastic.”
And they get more because of people like King.