As part of the Chancellor’s Lecture Series, sports icon and champion for equality Billie Jean King joined Candice Lee, vice chancellor for athletics and university affairs and athletic director, on March 1 for a conversation titled “Game, Set, Match: A New Era of Equality in Sports.”
Members of the Vanderbilt community may watch the full event. VUnetID login is required.
In the wide-ranging conversation, presented in partnership with the Nashville Public Library Foundation’s Votes for Women, King shared the story of her life and reflected on progress made and challenges remaining in the fight for equality and inclusivity in sports. The virtual event kicked off Women’s History Month and was part of the university’s yearlong celebration of the 50th anniversary of Title IX.
After Chancellor Daniel Diermeier opened the event by addressing King’s and Lee’s legacies as pioneers who seized the opportunities afforded by Title IX, women’s tennis student-athlete Marcella Cruz introduced King. A junior human and organizational development major, Cruz thanked King for “the inspiration she’s provided me ever since I was 10 years old.” Cruz recalled participating in the United States Tennis Association’s Player Development Program at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. It was there, as a 10-year-old, that she met her role model and mentor for the first time.
Lee and King began the conversation looking back on King’s remarkable life story, detailed further in King’s 2021 autobiography, All In. King told of saving $8.25, with help from her neighbors, to purchase her first racket and of her first lessons in the public parks near her southern California home. She recalled the power of watching Althea Gibson play in person in a tournament in Los Angeles and her admiration the first Black person to win a Grand Slam championship.
“If you could see it, you could be it,” King said of watching a female role model. “Now I knew what No. 1 looked like, how well she played.”
King shared the story of her 1973 exhibition match against Bobby Riggs, famously dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” While many may be familiar with the outlines of that cultural milestone—King defeated the former No. 1-ranked men’s player in three consecutive sets—she and Lee also spoke about the history that informed that moment. After tennis shifted from a largely amateur to professional model in 1968, King was one of nine women who broke away from tennis establishment and accepted $1 contracts from promoter Gladys Heldman in a revolt that led to the formation of the Virginia Slims Tour and, three years later, the Women’s Tennis Association.
“Bobby Riggs would not have been interested in us if we didn’t have a tour, and he saw the money we were making,” King said. “Without the original nine, the birth of women’s professional tennis as you know it today, it wouldn’t have happened probably.”
From King’s enthralling personal journey, the conversation turned to broader issues of equality in sports. Honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2009 for her work as a social justice pioneer and her accomplishments in sports, King asked Lee, the first Black woman to serve as athletic director in the SEC, about the challenges she experienced in her career.
“You can have something to celebrate and something to despair, all in the same moment,” Lee said. “I have experienced that. I’m part of a great community here, and I am very, very thankful. But I have also spoken very publicly about being a member of this community, and so many wonderful things, but also not feeling 100 percent comfortable. And I’ve been here for 25 years. But that’s a function of having multiple identities and trying to fit into a space that perhaps was not technically created for you. But yet you’re going to occupy it.
“That’s one of the things I’ve learned from you and your example, how to occupy that space and embrace it, even if it wasn’t built for you.”
The conversation also touched on the platform that the next generation of athletes has to influence social change. And King voiced her hope that technology and the entrepreneurship it spurs can be tools for continued progress in alleviating social inequalities.
“We have to keep fighting for just every person having an equal chance,” King said. “The equity and equality are intertwined. That’s why we do have to keep helping people that are under-resourced. I think the best way to help somebody is when they have something that is theirs and they find a way to make a living because of it.”
Members of the Vanderbilt community with a valid VUNet ID and who registered for the event may access an on-demand recording here.
The Chancellor’s Lecture Series is Vanderbilt University’s flagship event series that strives to connect the university community with leaders and visionaries who are shaping our world. The events include and host globally known speakers whose influence and expertise are especially relevant and timely to the issues of the day.