Billie Jean King, ForemotherRoundup
tags: sports, womens history, Billie Jean King, LGBTQ history, tennis, Amateurism
In the late 1990s, I could always draw dismissive snickers at ESPN production meetings — I was a commentator there at the time — when I lobbied for tennis champion Billie Jean King to be named that network’s number-one athlete of the twentieth century. In those days, even women sports wonks would roll their eyes and keep plugging for the likes of Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, or Muhammad Ali.
My argument then: that while Billie Jean, like all those worthies, not only dominated her sport, sold tickets, and crossed over into popular culture, she also went well beyond them in fighting successfully for gender equality and against that slavish system of control called amateurism. Meanwhile, she was representing and inspiring half the population of the world.
That was then. Check the recent sports news, please, and grant me a recount. At 77, Billie Jean is still active in the progressive movement in sports. She still marches, speaks, and tweets, while her legacy remains a critical context for current stories like the one about a transgender reality TV star and former Olympic champion running for governor of California, the upset victory that delivered the Senate to the Democrats, and an impending Supreme Court decision that might upend college sports as we know it (on all of which, more to come).
In her heyday, she was a woman whose life was too often defined in tabloid terms — wearing the “wrong” clothes as a junior tennis player, implicitly endorsing cigarettes, being outed as a closeted lesbian in a blackmail scandal, and taking a star turn in the silly yet symbolically significant 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match in which she beat aging male-chauvinist former tennis star Bobby Riggs before a TV audience of 50 million.
In this century, however, Billie Jean has emerged as a venerated foremother of American sports. As befits a legend, she’s generated at least four autobiographies. The latest, All In, written with Johnette Howard and Maryanne Vollers (to be released this summer), will help make my case. Now, let me trace her influence through four contemporary sports-related stories, the most complicated and far-reaching first.
The End of Amateurism
Story one: Sometime next month, the Supreme Court is expected to deliver an opinion in NCAA v. Alston. It’s an athlete-led flank attack on the present system of compensating college players — basically through “scholarships” that cover only tuition and living expenses — as a violation of antitrust laws.
The Supremes are sure to offer a narrow opinion because this particular case focuses only on a cap of about $6,000 on various education-related awards that universities are allowed to bestow on athletes. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with its 1,268 universities, colleges, conferences, and associations, imposed that cap in a relentless attempt to avoid expensive competition among its schools. The greatest fear of its top officials: a burst of uncontrolled bidding wars for high-school athletic talent. After all, the NCAA was created in 1906 to enrich itself through the unpaid labor of “student-athletes,” of whom the organization estimates there are now about 480,000.
As the justices prepare their decision, the NCAA business model is about to blow up anyway, with new state laws in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and New Mexico that will allow such athletes to be paid by private companies for the use of their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA, afraid of losing control of its monopoly, is rushing to loosen its own restrictions to stay ahead of a potential tidal wave of change. Ironically, it may soon find itself at cross purposes with its own Supreme Court case.
All of this feels like nothing less than the welcome death throes of a scam religion called Amateurism, which has been defined as playing games for love, not money — or not your own money, anyway. Think of it as the original sin of American sports. No one should be surprised, then, that it came out of slavery. The first celebrated athletes in America were unpaid Black slaves who represented their plantations as boxers, rowers, and jockeys. Their owners gambled on their skills against slaves from other plantations in bare-knuckle fights, as well as horse and crew races. When sports became prestigious and profitable, white people took over playing many of the games.
Even though, in the last century, Olympic and college athletes, along with golfers and tennis players, became worldwide stars, they remained tightly controlled servants of “Shamateurism,” as it was dubbed then. This was the practice of denying such athletes the right to accept money as gifts or for expenses, much less as fees for appearances or endorsements.
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