Screenshot from: 'This Week' Sunday Spotlight: Billie Jean King (https://youtu.be/MyMtOwwtJW0).

Game, Set, Match!!

Every day when I go online I’m overwhelmed by the amount of bad news I see. In fact some days it feels like the world is coming to an end. But then I remember, this is but a moment in time and while much of what we’re going through is new and unique—I’m talking about you, COVID—a lot or what we’re experiencing has happened before.

Civil Rights March
Title: “Civil rights march on Washington, D.C. / [WKL].” Original black and white negative by Warren K. Leffler. Taken August 28th, 1963, Washington D.C, United States. Colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA
I’m a history buff and one of the things I’ve been doing to keep myself entertained while quarantining is reading old New York Times newspapers from the 1960s (okay, I may also be a bit of a nerd). If you think things are tough now—and they are—the sixties were filled with unimaginable turmoil: a very unpopular war, political upheaval, racial unrest, violent protests, sexism, assassinations, rampant drug abuse, increasing pollution… and the list goes on. I imagine many people reading the news back then struggled to maintain any hope at all.

I believe there are many more good people in the world than bad. I believe most of us have a common goal of making good lives for our families, friends, and fellow human beings.

The good news is, here we stand. We survived the sixties. The bad news is, we’re still dealing with some of those same issues today. So, what’s my point? Well, I am and hopefully always will be an optimist. I believe there are many more good people in the world than bad. I believe most of us have a common goal of making good lives for our families, friends, and fellow human beings. I believe that with genuine soul searching and tangible action on each of our parts, we will ultimately overcome the injustice and inequality that exists in the world. And, let me be clear, I believe we will get through 2020 and that the future is bright.

How do I stay positive? I look at history to remind myself how much adversity we’ve overcome through the years. We’re survivors! I also consciously seek out good news, and oftentimes I do find it in my daily feeds. I just have to look a little harder these days. And, I find tremendous inspiration for learning about game-changers. People who’ve stepped out of their personal comfort zones and battled inequality and injustice, not only for themselves but also on behalf of so many others. These individuals haven’t just survived, they’ve thrived! They’ve created change, helping to make our world a better place. Allow me to tell you about two of them.

I’m a big tennis fan and two of my all-time heroes are Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe, true legends in the sport. They were world-class athletes with many victories between them, but they were perhaps even more respected for their actions off the court.

Billie Jean King and Arthur Ashe
Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King at the British Lawn Tennis Association Ball at Grosvenor House in London, July 5, 1975. (AP Photo/Smith) AP Photo

Billie Jean King rose to prominence in the late sixties and early seventies, a time when many people still considered women second-class citizens. It was especially difficult for female athletes, most of whom weren’t taken seriously. Nowhere was this illustrated more clearly than in the prize money they were awarded. In 1970, the men’s US Open Tennis champion earned $20,000. The women’s champion? $7,500.

In 1973 Billie Jean King, who was 29 years old at the time and in the prime of her career, was challenged by Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champ and avowed male chauvinist, to a “Battle of the Sexes” match. To say this match was a monumental moment in history is an understatement. You see, just four months earlier Bobby Riggs had crushed Margaret Court, one of the most successful tennis players of all time, in an exhibition match, 6-2, 6-1, on Mother’s Day, no less. It’s important to understand that women were struggling mightily for recognition and equal rights back in 1973, and this loss was devastating for the women’s movement. It put even more pressure on Billie Jean King who, personally, had much more to lose than gain in accepting this challenge. She was carrying the hopes and dreams of women all around the world on her narrow shoulders, and she knew it.

The significance of this match can’t be downplayed. The advance hype was unprecedented with aggressive coverage not just by the sports press but by the national media as well. It was truly a watershed moment in US culture. With a winner-take-all prize of $100,000 ($576,000 today), the match was played in the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,472, to this day, the largest audience ever to see a tennis match in the United States. Broadcast in primetime on the ABC network, it drew an estimated audience of 50 million in the U.S. and 90 million worldwide.

This exhibition, so much more than a tennis match, was won by Billie Jean King—in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, inspiring and uplifting people, and especially women, all over the world.

“It’s just really important that we start celebrating our differences. Let’s start tolerating first, but then we need to celebrate our differences.”—Billie Jean King

I’d argue that women everywhere—not just women athletes—owe Billie Jean King a debt of gratitude. She’s always advocated for equal rights. Early in her career, she took the lead in fighting for the same prize money for men and women (the women were putting just as many butts in the seats as the men were at most tournaments). It’s likely no coincidence that in the same year Billie Jean King won the Battle of the Sexes match, the US Open Tennis tournament began awarding the men’s and women’s champions equal prize money. Among her many honors is her induction into the International Tennis Hall of Fame and in 2009 President Barack Obama awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom for her work advocating for women’s rights and the LGBTQIA+ community. She’s a champion for all. One of my favorite quotes of hers is, “It’s just really important that we start celebrating our differences. Let’s start tolerating first, but then we need to celebrate our differences.”

Wimbledon
Wimbledon, London.

Arthur Ashe didn’t win as many major tournaments as Billie Jean King, but the cultural impact he made was just as significant. He was the first Black player selected to the US Davis Cup Team and the only Black man ever to win the Grand Slam singles championships at Wimbledon, the US Open, and the Australian Open. Like Billie Jean King, he was in the prime of his tennis career in the sixties and seventies. One of the things I admired most about him was that he was a true gentleman who played the game with grace and endless class when many of his contemporaries made headlines as much for their boorish on-court behavior as they did for their play. He showed that nice guys could win and that kindness mattered.

Having experienced discrimination throughout his life, Arthur Ashe was an active civil rights supporter. In 1985 he traveled to South Africa with a delegation of 31 other well-known African Americans to observe the massive political change occurring in the country as Apartheid was in its final days and racial integration was approaching. He was arrested more than once for participating in protests against racism.

Nelson Mandela monument by Marco Cianfanelli. Howick, South Africa.
Nelson Mandela monument by Marco Cianfanelli. Howick, South Africa.

Unfortunately, Arthur Ashe had a history of heart disease in his family, which afflicted him when he was in his mid-thirties. In 1988 it was discovered that he was infected with HIV which his doctors believed he contracted from blood transfusions received during his second heart surgery. The stigma surrounding HIV and AIDS in the 1980s was horrendous and those afflicted were often ostracized. After going public with his illness, he founded the Arthur Ashe Foundation for the Defeat of AIDS, which worked to raise awareness about the virus and advocated for teaching sex education and safe sex. He was open about his own diagnosis and strove to clear up the misconception that only gay men or IV drug users were at risk for contracting AIDS. Sadly, he passed away due to complications from AIDS in 1993. To his final day, he was a hero in every sense of the word, and the year he died he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Bill Clinton.

Just in case I haven’t effectively communicated how much of an impact these two athletes have made, how about this? In professional tennis, there are four major Grand Slam tournaments, the most coveted championships in all of tennis. They are the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open. Every year the US Open championship matches are played in Arthur Ashe Stadium, and the entire 46.5 acre, multi-court complex is officially named the USTA Billie Jean King Tennis Center.

Arthur Ashe Stadium, Flushing, NY, USA
Arthur Ashe Stadium, Flushing, NY, USA
USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center
Bronze Statue by Marshall Fredericks at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center (2019). Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One of the traditions at Wimbledon, the most prestigious tournament in all of tennis, is that on the final night of the championship a formal ball is held and the women’s and men’s champions share a dance. In 1975 Billie Jean King won the women’s title and Arthur Ashe—against all odds—won the men’s title. At the champions’ ball, these two sports icons and humanitarians got to share that special dance. When I see that picture it always makes me smile.

I could go on and on about these two American heroes. They both faced injustice and inequality. Yet, they persevered. They both had days when they were faced with nothing but bad news. Yet, they didn’t quit. Ultimately, they kept pursuing their dreams. Sometimes they just had to figure out new and unique ways of pursuing them. They fought and won battles and they blazed trails that, thanks to their efforts, have turned into paths much easier walked by many of us today. Billie Jean King’s and Arthur Ashe’s many achievements could fill a book. They were their generation’s Modern Icons! They inspire me, and when I’m inspired I have hope for the future.

—C.W.

Game Set Match
‘Game Set Match’ was written by our own Chief of Community Experience, Cindy Woodford.

Throughout our history, athletes have used their fame to bring attention to social justice causes. Is there a sports figure that has encouraged you to Level Up? Please tell us about out it. Send your essay submissions here.

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41 Comments
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Kate Perry
Kate Perry
26 days ago

I’m in awe Cindy! Beautifully written!!

Sofia Tobiasson
Sofia Tobiasson
26 days ago

Very interesting article, Cindy! I myself also love tennis and played it for over ten years. I knew that Billie Jean King had done a lot for women in the sport (and in general) but not to this extent. The fact that there is a lot more equality in tennis than in other sports, like football, is something that I have always appreciated about the game. Thank you for sharing this and for teaching us more about these tennis greats

Sara Buckle
26 days ago

My 1st memory of sport on TV? The battle of the sexes. Which was the 1st time (at the age of 7) I knew what was at stake.
My parents were cheering for Billie Jean King, as they and a number of friends piled into our sitting room, as we had a colour television to watch it on!
Our parents were both already activists on many fronts. The joy from them both when Billie Jean won will forever be etched in my memory. Both also loved Arthur Ashe, and I still remember him being my mother’s favourite at the time. So to say I’m overjoyed you mention these two people – especially as Billie Jean King was outed not by choice, and her actions and activism then undoubtedly helped bring more positive LGBTQ acceptance, and allowed a slow but steady trickle for others to be open in regards their sexuality. A far cry from Margaret Court, whose homophobia and transphobia is rampant.
Thank you so much for this!

Bianca
26 days ago

Thank you for sharing, Cindy. Great article about two very inspiring people. I also really appreciate the reminder that there is always good news out there and even if it harder to find some days, it’s still there for us to draw strength from.

Shandy Marbles
Shandy Marbles
26 days ago

Brilliantly written, super interesting and I learned a few things too! Thank you for this article, Cindy. Your writing skills are enviable and your passion too. I love it, and the photo of you as well.

Nancy Van Den Berghe
Nancy Van Den Berghe
26 days ago

Thank you Cindy for this amazing article! I am a big tennis fan , played it myself for a lot of years and watched it for even more years. I often heard about Billie Jean King but with this article I learned even more about her accomplishments in and outside of the tennis world. It was a joy to read your article!

Erin Ianna
26 days ago

Awesome article Cindy, so beautifully written. Two amazing athletes who have inspired so many people both in the in and out of the sporting world.

Carson Stanton
Carson Stanton
26 days ago

Your writing is beautiful Cindy! As a history nerd myself I was able to learn about two people who seem absolutely amazing, so thank you. Even with all the darkness the world is still a bright place!

Brandy Hester
26 days ago

What a beautifully written article, with such important and timely reminders. There are few things in life I love more than seeing passion in action, and you absolutely conveyed that, as well as your zest for life, here. I very much enjoy your perspective, and incomparable energy. Thank you for sharing another part of yourself with us. Be well. ✨

Kylie Steel
Kylie Steel
26 days ago

Wow Cindy, Chyler was not kidding. Another fabulous article. While I was aware of Billie Jean I had not heard of Arthur, what a hero. Thank you so much for sharing this, what an amazing message and three amazing people (including you). The create change team are especially vital at the moment when hope is challenging. Thank you.

PS nice profile picture on the bridge with the Opera House in the background. I suspect you were doing the bridge walk. Go you. I was in the city at the Rocks yesterday but like hell you will get me on a bridge that high above the water.

Tracy Pelster
Tracy Pelster
26 days ago

My Aunt loved tennis and I had learned so much thru her. I remember her speaking of Billy Jean King and Arthur Ashe but I never knew until now how much they brought to the show.

Their journeys are both so remarkable, honorable and game changing on so many levels, for all of us. Their accomplishments are beyond amazing, yet humbling.

Thank you, Cindy. This is truly an amazing article and very well written. You taught me things I probably should have known from the past but took for granted. Sometimes we forget it took other’s hard work to get us where we are today and that we all need to help continue moving forward, the same way to help those in the years to come as well.

Last edited 26 days ago by Tracy Pelster
Lynn
Lynn
26 days ago

Thank you for sharing this.

Isabel Redmond
Isabel Redmond
26 days ago

Wow what an inspirational article! Thank you so much for sharing this Cindy because as a collage athlete, who is also an African American woman, this is incredibly important and influential in my career and ability to do what I love. Seeing stories like these always remind me to keep fighting when things get tough, in my sport or just life in general.

I have always been in awe of athletes like Billie Jean King and Artur Ashe, who have taken their passions for sports and intertwined them with their activism. Being a gymnast meant that all sports were a part of my life and I have heard countless stories of athletes who have paved the way for equality in and out of the arena, but never has it been so important for me.

With everything that has happened this year, I have begun to realize the role I can play as an athlete in creating positive change. So, whenever I read or watch stories Billie Jean King’s or Arthur Ashe’s, I am inspired follow in their footsteps and use my platform and voice to fight for a better future as well. It is my turn to take the wheel and use my title as a college gymnast to make the world a better place and start building a brighter future for the next generation. This article is another reminder for me to level up and start speaking out about what is important to me. 

Shandy Marbles
Shandy Marbles
26 days ago
Reply to  Isabel Redmond

I love your response to Cindy’s article, and I especially love the way you see your role as a college athlete. We should all, athlete or not, be looking to find things we can do to brighten the futures of the next generation and beyond. You might already have submitted a #LevelUp piece, but if you haven’t, perhaps you could consider it? I’m sure many people would like to read about how you have or will level up from your point of view as an African American college athelete, I know I certainly would.

Dorin Cohen
Dorin Cohen
26 days ago

WOW Cindy ,let me say that this is the most inspirational ,uplifting spirit article I have ever read!
to learn about these two it’s truly amazing . the fact that there were a change makers already in the 70’s really gives hope and faith for our future .
the fight for justice and equality still not over ,but thanks to them we’ve come a long way from we began and we will keep fighting and making change around the world.
thank you for this beautiful article ,really level me up for creating change ❤

Erika Hockova
Erika Hockova
25 days ago

Hi Cindy 🙂
I like your writing it is very soft with affinity 🙂 I have same opinion about good people, there are more on the planet than bad and to look on positive news is the right way how to not deal with negativity and bad people. I do too 🙂 To look on it and put there our attention give them power and I don´t want that I want to give power to positive things:) I like that I found common things with you and that there are people as you 🙂

Erika Hockova
Erika Hockova
22 days ago
Reply to  Cindy Woodford

Exactly! 🙂 And yes, hope is very important…:)

CAROLINE VANNIER
CAROLINE VANNIER
24 days ago

Très bel article Cindy Merci…. Je pense avoir compris l’essentiel….Billie jean et arthur Ashe ont fait évolué les mentalités dans le sport et dans le vivre ensemble. Ce sont de vrais héros modernes.Billie Jean est devenue une icône du combat féministe et LGBT des années 70/80. Arthur Ashe a du se battre contre les préjugés et le racisme. Ces deux belles personnes resteront pour toujours dans notre mémoire collective…Total respect pour leur courage et leur engagement…. I love them. Cindy I don’t know you but I like your kindness and thank you for your commitement and Sharing with us This article. I’m sorry To write in french but my english is too bad.
Caroline

CAROLINE VANNIER
CAROLINE VANNIER
21 days ago
Reply to  Cindy Woodford

Merci beaucoup d’avoir pris le temps de me répondre.. Hâte de vous lire de nouveau… Kiss from Burgundy

Isabelle Rakhma
Isabelle Rakhma
23 days ago

I am juste bluffed. Not only you are an amazing human and a really great phtographer, you are also a really talented writer. This article is really beautiful and carries a message of hope important in the current time.
I personnaly didn’t know about those people so thank you for teaching me. I am a women doing mostly let’s say “manly” activities ( falconery) and I know how hard it can be.

Thank you Cindy for sharing with us this amazing article.

Linda Howard
Linda Howard
23 days ago

Cindy, thank you for reminding me of the monumental importance of Billie Jean King. Billie-Jean was a huge inspiration to me as a young gay woman in the 70s/80s, growing up in a rural village in the UK. Back then there was no gay representation on TV shows, no celebrities to relate to, no role models as there are today, but Billie Jean and later Martina were shining lights to me and gave me hope that I wasn’t alone. She was forced out of the closet and lost so much when she stated publicly that she was gay but she says that the truth set her free. She stood up for being who she was, was strong in facing the media storm and public backlash like no one before her and that was incredible to me. Of course I realised much later what she had done to further women rights in general and equal pay particularly. As you say women everywhere have so much to thank her for. I know I do.

Bleuñvenn Erussard
Bleuñvenn Erussard
8 days ago

Hi Cindy, first, thank you for this thoughfull article. (I know I’m a little bit late but whatever^^). Personnaly, it’s Morihei Ueshiba (founder of the Aïkido), who inspired me every day !

Jenny Sobiella
Jenny Sobiella
2 days ago

After literal weeks of wanting to comment on your article I finally get around to it! By now I’ve read your article multiple times just because I can feel the passion and positivity in your words and it’s so very healing for a sometimes tired soul.
Thank you for taking the time to put this wonderful article together and sharing a piece of you with us – it is greatly appreciated.
I hope you and yours are well!

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