Sports Icon Billie Jean King Scores With ‘Groundbreakers,’ As Female Athletes Discuss How Their Struggles Have Shaped Women’s Sports

Billie Jean King always knew that she’d make a difference.

“When I was seven, I was drying dishes. I go, “Mommy, mommy, I’m going to do something great with my life. I know it. I just know it.” And she said, “Just get back drying those dishes, you know, and you’ve got homework.”

Her mother’s response didn’t deter King in any way whatsoever.

The tennis legend went on to win 39 Gram Slam titles. King also is the founder of the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sport Foundation, but what she’s most proud of is her work to ensure equality.

In June 1972, Title IX, a small 37-word provision in the 1972 Education Amendments, was designed to ensure that all people – regardless of gender – have equal opportunity to federally funded programs. The historic bill opened the floodgates for young girls to participate in sanctioned sports activities.

Shortly after the passage of Title IX, King lobbied for women to earn the same amount of prize money as men at the U.S. Open. As a result of her advocacy, that tournament became the first major tennis event to offer equal prize money to both sexes.

Now, King is part of the PBS
documentary film Groundbreakers, which brings together seven accomplished athletes to discuss the past, present and future of women’s sports.

Hosted by King, the film weaves together eight athletes as they discuss how their struggles and achievements have shaped women’s sports. Featured are tennis player Naomi Osaka, track and field athlete Jackie Joyner-Kersee, snowboarder Chloe Kim, basketball player Nancy Lieberman, gymnast Suni Lee, and soccer players Julie Foudy and Diana Flores.

Giving some background, King points out that, “So, it’s our 50th year of celebrating equal prize money at the U.S. Open. Before that we were making about 37.5% [of what the men made].”

Explaining the format that has athletes in conversation with one another, with one having retired and the other still competing, executive producer Patty Ivins Specht says, “[The] concept of mixing generations and really gave us this opportunity to find the best voices, to have these conversations. It feels like you’re sitting with friends and they’re telling pieces of their life story.”

She adds that, ”when you see Suni and Chloe [in the film] have these moments, [where they realize that] the path they’re walking is easier because the path that [Billie Jean and Julie Foudy] have walked — it’s really powerful to see that growth.”

King jumps in to say, “I think you don’t feel alone either. I think you feel like you’re a continuum with each generation. I feel connected to the older generation. I feel connected to the younger generations, and I like that each generation is a stepping stone up or forward.”

The whole point of making the film is exactly that, says King. “We want to touch different generations.”

As for what transpires going forward, King is still just very excited about the progression she’s seen up to this point. “It’s just amazing what’s been going on. This is what I’ve waited for my whole life and I’m glad I’m still alive to see this.”

King is clear that she doesn’t think about how she’ll be remembered as she declares, “I think others will decide what my legacy is.”

As for her lifelong journey as both an athlete and an activist, she says that, “But I love being both. When I was 12 years old, I promised myself that I would fight for equality the rest of my life. I love to show that women athletes can help bring about positive change. It gives us power. It gives us leadership. It gives us all the things that are important in life to feel confident and have a great life. I’ve had amazing life.”

‘Groundbreakers’ premieres November 21st at 8:00pm on PBS, and will be available for streaming on the PBS app shortly thereafter.

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