Billie Jean King On Paying College Athletes, Leaning In, And The Future Of Feminism


Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs in the leadup to the Battle of the Sexes.

At 9PM tonight, PBS will air its first installment of American Masters on an athlete, tennis, feminist, and gay rights pioneer Billie Jean King. Exploring in particular King’s fight to allow women to play professional rather than simply amateur tennis, and the events, including number one ranked player Margaret Court’s loss, that lead to her famous matchup against Bobby Riggs.

King may no longer play tennis professionally, but she’s keeping busy as the majority owner of World TeamTennis and as a member of the President’s Council for Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. We spoke in Los Angeles in August in a wide-ranging conversation about the pretense of amateurism in college sports, what college athletes should be paid, the value of reading Lean In and The Feminine Mystique together, and why men and women have the same interests when it comes to equal pay and work-life balance. An organizer at heart, King spent much of the interview quizzing me to see if I got it. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

We’re a microcosm of society. we’re finally included. We’re usually on the outside looking in. Performing, arts. We’re performers. People think we’re dumb jocks, and we talk about issues every day. We live and breathe it, and we use all of our body. I think people, especially girls, should always be in activities, sports, so they’ll trust their bodies. Do you exercise?

I’m a huge klutz, but I was a distance runner.

Do you realize, every woman that I talk to always has a preface. “I’m a klutz. I’m not very good.” The guys never do. Why do you think we do that?

I should be more fair to myself. I played basketball for five years.

Duh. That would be a great study for the think tank. Why do girls preface [statements] with “I’m not any good, but–.”

I wanted to start by asking you about a section of the movie that I hadn’t known very much about. I hadn’t known much about the fight against amateurism and the right to be professionals, and I was curious what you thought about the current conversation about the NCAAs. Because there are obviously some sports in some schools where athletics are a purely amateur pursuit, but given the amount of money we see schools making with football and basketball, do we need to have a conversation about amateurism in college sports.

Absolutely. Women’s Sports Magazine, which I started, it’s not around anymore, but it was, it was around for like 35 years. Back in 1974 when we started, I wrote a piece about the NCAAs, that it was really professional. In those days, Ohio State had a $13 million budget, $13 million in those days. I don’t know what it is today, but I said, that sounds professional. We shouldn’t call it a scholarship for athletes. We should call it contracts. Because that’s really what they’re saying. “We want you to come to this school to play a sport. It brings honor to the school, it’ll help us out, help us get more money for the school from our alumni.” The whole nine yards. And that’s what’s really important to have that integrity, to just say what it is.

These sports do help. For instance, I know at the PAC-12 that football and basketball pay for all the other sports, really help supplement their costs. So you have to decide if they’re good for the school or not. I think they do bring a lot of prestige to the school. I think they give a lot of focus on the school. I just think they need to change “scholarship” to “contract” because that’s really what it is. I just think it’s semantics a lot of the time and I just think we should be above-board. “Listen, I want you to come to my school because you’re good at something. You’re highly skilled and you’ll bring good attention and good focus to our school, and more kids will think about coming to our school whether they’re an athlete or not.”

I thought they did a good job of explaining the concept of “shamateurism,” where you’re getting money slipped to you under the table, which is effectively the same thing that’s happens with high-level college sports.

I’ll tell you one thing, they should get so much expense money, because if you are poor, you’re not economically able, let’s say I get a scholarship to a school. So I arrive. I need spending money, or else I’m going to cheat. Or I need a job. I either need a job or I need spending money. I would rather give them a stipend so they can go get their laundry done, feed themselves, and all that. I think they should make it legal to give them extra money. I know they’ve talked about $2,000, I need to get up to speed. It’s a no brainer. If I don’t have any money, if I don’t want a kid to cheat, okay? They need money to live on every day.

How would you structure an NCAA compensation system?

I’d give them per diem! I don’t know, I can’t say what it is. But don’t act like it’s amateur. It’s professional! I don’t care if it’s professional. Who cares? They’re coming to our school. And then you have to decide, “Am I going to make them get their education?” or not. I still think it’s great for a kid to have that opportunity to get their education. I don’t know. These are questions I ask myself. Would I rather they be highly educated and get their degree? Absolutely. But I don’t live in their shoes.

Obviously you worked incredibly hard to get equal prize money for women–

At the majors. We don’t have equal prize money [across the board].

Do you think that’s a possibility? Why haven’t we been able to win this?

It’s a microcosm of society. First of all, men control 95 percent of the media, the decision-makers. Still. Would you agree with that?

I think it’s a little bit smaller, but in sports, certainly, it’s incredibly high.

So we all, boys and girls, have learned to see through the eyes of men. ‘Cause they write about it. They’re the ones who make the decisions. Now we have more women writing, which I think is great. But a lot of them tend to follow what the men want. But sports are a microcosm of society, so if you study sports, you study life, you study everything. From the shamateurism to NCAA to whatever. And we just, as women, we have so far to go, still. I don’t know what your generation thinks. Do you think your generation thinks about it that much?

I think we think about it all the time.

Really? Your group, that you’re in, I can tell does. Do you go to junior high schools and ask kids what they want to be? I know what they tell me. They want to be famous. Not accomplished. So I ask them, you want to be famous, do you also want to be accomplished? They think famous is much more important than accomplished. As a child, I thought about being accomplished. I want to be the best. Not on TV for 15 minutes, or a reality show. Reality shows, look at them, there are so many of them! I can’t watch them for 30 seconds. I try, because I want to know what the kids are doing. I’ll watch the MTV Pregnant At 16, or whatever they call it. It’s so sad. The dysfunction in those families are so prevalent.

You ask what women my age are doing. I don’t know if you’ve read or read about Lean In.

I read it! You know what I did at the same time? I read The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan.

I read them like that too!

All right! And what did you think?

It was fascinating reading The Feminine Mystique, because I feel like the same backlash narrative has sort of played out in certain ways. My mother worked for Bella Abzug in Congress–

She did? That’s why you are the way you are. Now you’ve already answered everything.

But I’ve really seen that sort of backlash narrative. There’s a lot of “choose my choice” feminism, the idea that there’s this sort of fetishization of being the perfect mom. and being the perfect wife.

You still think that’s prevalent?

I think that’s come back in a big way. You have these mommy blogs and parenting blogs, and there’s a real emphasis again on being an accomplished wife and mother. Not that that’s something I have a problem with, home life can be wonderful and satisfying. But I think we’ve seen some women who are doing what Friedan describes in the book, and looking down on career women and saying it’s better to stay at home. And it’s amazing to see the persistence of that narrative even in women my age.

They need to let people make a choice. Everything’s about choice. That’s good for you, this is what I want, and they’re both great. Because we’re women in this together, and men and women in this together.

But I think you see some defensiveness on behalf of women who are staying home.

Why? If they can afford it, great!

It’s fascinating. But Lean In, every young woman I know read it this year.

It’s so obviously how much easier it is to get data today. I went to Sheryl’s home and spoke to her employees, so I know her a little bit. And you know she’s got whatever she wants at her fingertips. She’s probably got 52 interns running around getting her data for that book. And I thought about how Betty had to just plow every day to go talk to editors and figure it out, how to put it down correctly. The process, just the snappiness of Sheryl’s book compared to the more dense, you could just see Betty struggling to get the information she needed and trying to analyze it. Where Sheryl’s just got it at her fingertips. So all this, if we want to know about somebody, we just look it up with their browser or whatever…What did you like about Lean In?

I think it’s been criticized for being contradictory, or for only being applicable to women in certain situations.

Well, it’s her story.

I thought it was a guide to thinking through dilemmas. I never would have thought in a million years that it was a good idea to take a job when you’re trying to get pregnant or when you’re pregnant already because it would make you more motivated to go back to into the workforce. But that just immediately made so much sense…I thought she did a really good job of talking you through how to ask for a raise.

Yes! That’s what I always tell girls. Ask for what you want and need. I want a whatever, for the following reasons. You can’t just ask. You have to have a reason. Didn’t you love the story about Laura, or whatever her name was, who came from Google and took a job two rungs down and ended up as the head of human resources? She asked the right question: “What do you need?”

I thought it was a really great example of women meeting the needs of our organizations. Women, I think, have a desire to be pleasers, and that was turning that into an asset for our own careers.

I have three things I always talk about at commencement…Keep learning how to learn. For me, it’s technology. I’m an old fart. Relationships are everything. And be a problem-solver. So when she says to Sheryl “What are your biggest problems?” I go, “She’s going to get that job. No-brainer. Whatever she wants, if she wants to do the job.” I hadn’t even read it, and I went, ba-bing. That’s one of my top three. If you’re a problem solver, you’re valuable to someone and their business. It was so great. She took a lesser job because she liked what Facebook was doing. Go get-’em….The people today from I think 25 to 44 will have an average of at least 11 to 13 jobs. I know the kids who are younger, who I’m talking to at commencement, are probably going to have 30 jobs before they’re finished. My generation, to think that, is like woah.

What do you think we need to do about women? What is the most important thing?

I think one thing that Lean In highlighted for me, and that I was thinking of in the context of prize money, is we’re still working in a way where you have to ask for everything. Let me put it this way. We’re still working at an individual level when I think we need to be working collectively a lot of time. If you have a good boss, you can work out a flexible work schedule, or you can take more maternity leave. But we aren’t working collectively, and I think making collective change and collective policies matters.

Do you think girls have to do it? Or girls and boys?

Boys and girls have to do it together. Marc Tracy, who’s a wonderful writer at the New Republic, has said that work-life balance is a men’s issue too, because there is no man in the universe who has work-life balance.

It totally is! I have one big thing left. Do you know about team tennis? It’s men and women on same team. It’s equal. On the same level playing field. It’s equal right off the bat. And that’s how I want the world to look.

If everyone’s on the same team, they have the same interests.

Thank you. Ba-bing! You get me. Do you know how hard it is for feminists to get me because it’s not just women? Do you realize how hard I have to fight every day and the men are like, “Huh?” This has been my idea since I’m a teenager, and I’m an old fart now. And people still aren’t seeing it. We’re in this world together…We need women in more leadership positions and more decison-making positions, and if a girl’s in sports, I think she culturally learns how the world works better in business. I think it’s so much easier on her. We are like guys. We go kill each other on the field and let’s go eat after, or let’s have a drink. That’s gone. Where did you first hear, you, that girls don’t get along?

It was so far back. I think the first illustration of it was when I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books and her rivalry with Nellie Oleson was something I picked up probably when I was five years old.

Right, so you started getting it. But girls perpetuate it. Older women. And I don’t allow it. Being a sportswoman as well, a former sportswoman, we’re not brought up that way. You had to see at least a few of us get together collectively to change things….It’s hard to do it on your own. I wanted to be with the men and they didn’t want us. They would reject me every time I would try. We’ve even tried lately and they don’t want us. They’re still egomaniacs, they still think they want all the money, “Screw you, nobody cares about you.” It’s like, “That’s not the point.” You should champion everybody.