The Entertainment of Sports

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Billie Jean King: A New Member to the Trojan Family

Billie Jean King is often referred to as the best female tennis player in history. While this is a phenomenal accomplishment, the description overlooks the other unparalleled successes she has made in her lifetime. From breaking tennis records to fighting against sexism in sports, Billie Jean King has exemplified courage and excellence. Thus, it is important and appropriate to acknowledge the attainments of King. An honorary degree from a college is a means to reward an individual for his or her merit. In the book, Liberal Education and the Public Interest, James Freedman, president emeritus of the University of Iowa and Dartmouth College, states that honorary degrees “celebrate distinguished and sublime achievement” (118). Additionally, recipients of honorary awards reflect the principles and virtues of the conferring school. On the basis of achievement and accordance to the University of Southern California’s mission and ethics, Billie Jean King is most deserving of a Doctorate of Humane Letters from USC in the spring of 2007.

Mike Martin of Chapman University suggests in his book titled, Meaningful Work: Rethinking Professional Ethics, that, “professionals achieve meaningful lives substantially from the meaning they derive through their work” (21). Therefore, judging an individual’s achievement can easily become a purely subjective process and unworthy individuals become recipients of honorary degrees. To strive for objectivity we will use a set of criteria to judge Billie Jean King’s career and we will ultimately find that she has attained legitimate success. Mike Martin further notes that achievement is defined by the three categories of craft, compensation, and morals (21). Martin further translates these categories into “advanced expertise, social recognition, and service to clients and community” (22). Billie Jean King undeniably exemplifies each of these three categories through her performance on and off the tennis court.

Billie Jean King demonstrates advanced expertise in several professional fields, but most notable is her skill on the tennis court. King won a record of 20 times at Wimbledon, with six times in singles. Additionally, she was ranked number one in the world five times between 1966 and 1972 and was in the Top 10 for a total of 17 years. Legendary tennis player, John McEnroe, said of King, "I don't think it's a stretch to say that Billie Jean King is the single most important person in the history of women's sports." Her skill as an athlete and tennis professional is reiterated through her induction to the International Tennis Hall of Fame. King also was the recipient of the highly esteemed Philippe Chatrier Award, the International Tennis Federation’s highest honor. It is irrefutable that Billie Jean King was a truly skilled athlete on the tennis court and her talent is further substantiated through the admiration she has received through respect and rewards.

Arguments may arise insisting that Billie Jean King is not qualified, or deserving of an honorary degree because she does not excel in an academic field. In his book, Freedman says, “…any aspiration to populate an American peerage is surely trivialized by decisions to garner a fleeting moment of public attention by awarding an institution’s ultimate accolade to mere celebrities…” (126). Many institutes have been guilty of awarding honorary degrees to celebrities who only bring the school publicity and money. Although the practice of awarding celebrities because of their fame needs to be avoided, USC explicitly states that nominees and recipients do not need be invested in academia. The USC Honorary Degree website writes, “An individual's nomination need not come from someone in his/her academic area, and we also welcome nominations of persons with distinguished accomplishments outside of conventional academic fields.” Past honorands of USC degrees include, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and U.S. Senator John McCain. Like King, these past recipients did not excel in an academic field, but their dedication and success in their careers warranted an honorary degree. Although Billie Jean King may not have undertaken scientific discovery or literary greatness, her career as a tennis player is worthy of veneration, especially an honorary degree.

The compensation that Billie Jean King has received for her actions provides clear evidence of her greatness. Martin notes that, “professionals typically receive above-average social rewards in the form of income and prestige” (22). In 1971, King was the first woman athlete to win more than $100,000 in any sport. Although this amount was not close to the amount that was awarded to male players, it was a major milestone for female athletes. Although she has made a large sum of money through her tennis career and endorsements, King has received the most rewards through compensation that is not monetary. In 1990, Billie Jean King was featured in Life Magazine as one of the 100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century. She was also the first woman to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsmen of the Year. These are just a couple of the hundreds of awards that Billie Jean King has received in her life. Perhaps the most significant form of recognition was the recent dedication of the United States Tennis Association National Tennis Center to her. This past August, the center changed its name to the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Regarding the renaming of the center, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said, “She set an exceptionally high standard not only for athletic achievement, but for dignity and perseverance in the pursuit of justice. Billie Jean King is an inspiration to all budding tennis players and all Americans." The variety and number of awards that King has gathered demonstrate her commendable achievements and to list all of them would be arduous.

To better understand why Billie Jean King has been rewarded with such honors, one must review those actions that she has taken under moral motives. Martin writes, “Professions provide opportunities to make ongoing contributions to the well-being of others” (23). Billie Jean King takes advantage of the opportunities offered by her profession by being an active advocate for social change. As previously discussed, King was a key player in the fight for women’s equality. An article titled, "Billie Jean won one for all women", asserts “She was instrumental in making it acceptable for American women to exert themselves in pursuits other than childbirth.” One example of King’s efforts to gain rights for female athletes is the creation of the Virginia Slims Tour. Billie Jean King felt that it was unacceptable for male tennis players to get paid as professionals, while she only received under the table payments. King actively remedied this situation by organizing the Virginia Slims Tour in which the female players signed contracts. She was also one of the founders of the Women’s Sports Foundation in 1974. This organization is dedicated to advancing the lives of girls and women through sports and physical activity. Billie Jean King’s contributions to the equality of women are irrevocable and immeasurable.

The most significant way in which Billie Jean King evened the playing field for men and women was in the historic tennis match with Bobby Riggs. The "Battle of the Sexes" match between Bobby Riggs proved to be one of King’s greatest victories in tennis and for women’s equality in sports. On Mother’s Day 1973, King defeated Riggs, a past Wimbledon champion and self-proclaimed “male chauvinist pig”. This defeat greatly reinforced the passage of Title IX, which occurred in the previous year. According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, “Before Title IX, only 1 in 27 girls participated in sports; today that number is 1 in 3. Participation for female athletes has risen 875 percent in high schools and 437 percent in colleges.” Regarding the influence of the match she stated, “I think it helped Title IX as far as changing the minds and hearts. Minds and hearts always take longer than legislation.” The "battle" inspired women to play sports and proved that women could compete just as well as men.

Although women’s equality may be her biggest success, King has also made major strides for the gay community. As a strong and visible woman, she has portrayed a positive image of a lesbian and epitomizes the Code of Ethics at USC, which says that it has a, “commitment to respecting the rights and dignity of all persons.” During the height of her tennis career she was married to her college sweetheart, but in 1981 an ex-lover outed King and filed a palimony suit. Billie Jean King, afraid of losing her tennis endorsements and her career, called the affair a "mistake" and stayed in the closet. It was not until 1998 that King formally came out of the closet. After revealing her sexuality, King has made generous efforts to facilitate the acceptance of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community.

Billie Jean King plays an active role in the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender community. She is currently a board member of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and the National AIDS Fund. Additionally, she received the Capitol Award from GLAAD, the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, in 2000. The Capitol Award is "given to an openly lesbian or gay individual who has achieved excellence in a specific area of media and furthered the visibility and inclusion of the community through his/her work." Although Billie Jean King may be criticized for not publicly coming out until after her tennis career, she currently serves as a respected member of the GLBT community. The USC Code of Ethics says, “We nurture an environment of mutual respect and tolerance.” Billie Jean King’s life embodies this sentiment through her activism for equal human rights of women and homosexuals.

Due to the fact that Billie Jean King did not publicly announce her homosexuality until 1998, an argument may be formed that she was not true to herself and, therefore, should not receive an honorary degree. This argument is understandable, but her actions were warranted and they in no way diminish her work and achievement. She gained love and respect from fans before telling them that she was a lesbian. Had she told her audiences that she was gay at the beginning of her career, much of the headway that she made for females in athletics would have been nonexistent. The generalization that woman who play sports are lesbians would have been reinforced and would have deterred many girls from joining a team for the fear that they would be identified as a homosexual. Additionally, the fear she would jeopardize her career by outing herself is reasonable, especially in the 1970s and 1980s. The loss of her endorsements after the palimony suit was filed is a testament to the danger that King’s career would have suffered if she had identified herself as a lesbian during her tennis career.

King has previously been awarded with honorary degrees from Trinity College, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Massachusetts. This indicates her worthiness of an honorary degree, as well as her ability to provide a valuable speech upon commencement. A topic she can credibly endorse is the belief of tolerance and acceptance that is embedded in the Code of Ethics. The document expresses, “As members of the USC community, we treat everyone with respect and dignity, even when the values, beliefs, behavior, or background of a person or group is repugnant to us.” Additionally, Billie Jean King would be an exceptionally appropriate recipient of an honorary degree due to the high esteem that USC holds its athletics. The female athletes that attend USC should be extremely appreciative of the work that King has done so that they have the opportunity to be an athlete at USC and receive scholarships. This connection of athletics creates a stronger bond between Billie Jean King and the University of Southern California.

According to Freedman, “In bestowing an honorary degree, a university makes an explicit statement to its students and the world about the qualities of character and attainment it admires most” (117). Billie Jean King exemplifies the ideals and mission that the University of Southern California bestows upon its students. The Role and Mission of USC states, “An extraordinary closeness and willingness to help one another are evident among USC students, alumni, faculty, and staff; indeed, for those within its compass the Trojan Family is a genuinely supportive community.” Billie Jean King rightfully deserves to become a member of the Trojan Family. Her accomplishments are distinguished and resounding. The conferral of an honorary degree from USC to Billie Jean King would emphasize the mission and ethics of the university. As stated on the USC Honorary Degrees website, honorary degrees are used, “to elevate the university in the eyes of the world by honoring individuals who are widely known and highly regarded for achievements in their respective fields of endeavor." By honoring Billie Jean King, students will better understand the type of person that USC seeks to cultivate from its education.