44 Years Later: Billie Jean King And Others Are Still Fighting For Female Equality In Sports

“Imagine you’re a little girl. You’re growing up. You practice as hard as you can, with girls, with boys. You have a dream. You fight, you work, you sacrifice to get to this stage. You work as hard as anyone you know. And then you get to this stage, and you’re told you’re not the same as a boy. Almost as good, but not quite the same. Think how devastating and demoralizing that could be.”

Venus Williams has reached the pinnacle of her profession on more than one occasion. Her fight for equal pay, however, might be the battle she hopes people remember most.

The U.S. Open, French Open and Australian Open already awarded equal prize money to the winners in the Men’s and Women’s final.  Williams spoke to the Grand Slam Committee at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club the day before the 2005 Wimbledon final. The latest hurdle in the continued effort for equality.

In the days leading up to the final–where Williams would face American Lindsay Davenport–Williams wrote an op-ed in the Times of London. In it, a scathing rebuke of Wimbledon and the message it serves.

“I feel so strongly that Wimbledon’s stance devalues the principle of meritocracy and diminishes the years of hard work that women on the tour have put into becoming professional tennis players.

“I believe that athletes — especially female athletes in the world’s leading sport for women — should serve as role models. The message I like to convey to women and girls across the globe is that there is no glass ceiling. My fear is that Wimbledon is loudly and clearly sending the opposite message. …

“I intend to keep doing everything I can until Billie Jean’s original dream of equality is made real. It’s a shame that the name of the greatest tournament in tennis, an event that should be a positive symbol for the sport, is tarnished.”

When Billie Jean King agreed to play Bobby Riggs in the much ballyhooed, “Battle of the Sexes,” it was more spectacle than controversial feminism. She couldn’t walk into a male-dominated board room and demand equality. King knew to gain a footing in a male-dominated society, she would have to play the part. She wore a sequined dress and men carried her out like an Egyptian queen.

Even before the huge event, King had already made huge inroads in her mission for equality.

King organized a meeting on June 20, 1973 founding the Women’s Tennis Association. Months before the U.S. Open, King threatened to boycott the Grand Slam. A year earlier, King had received $15,000 less than her winning male-counterpart. On July 19, the United States Open became the first Grand Slam to offer equal prize money to men and women. On Sept. 20, two months before her 30th birthday, King defeated Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes.

“I … knew it was very important I win the match if I wanted people to take women’s tennis – and women – seriously,” said King.

While King had to glam it up to fight for equality, Venus Williams needed no such theatrical support. The power women in tennis now held was evident. Wimbledon would become the final Grand Slam to provide equal pay in 2007. A year after Williams’ op-ed and appearance in front of the Grand Slam Committee.

10 years later, tennis as a whole continues to fight against the equality Williams and King command.

Despite equal pay in Grand Slams, the median pay gap between a woman in the top 100 and her opposite number on the men’s tour is $120,624. Despite women outdrawing men in attendance at most events, Raymond Moore, the former tournament director of the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif., an equal prize money event, resigned after saying that WTA players were “lucky” to be able to “ride on the coattails of the men.”

This is happening in Tennis, a sport often used as the shining example of equality in professional sports. When looking at various national teams, it took boycotts and lawsuits to enact change.

The United States Women’s Hockey team threatened to boycott the 2017 IIHF Women’s World Championship. The team was only earning $6,000 every four years from USA Hockey — $1,000 a month for the six months before every Olympics — and USA Hockey was spending nothing on elite girls’ programs, compared to the $3.5 million a year spent on elite boys’ programs.

The new deal they agreed to just days before the world championships guaranteed livable wages and equitable resources.

The US Women’s Soccer team also found themselves on the short end of the equality stick despite being an international powerhouse since the Women’s World Cup’s inception in 1995. Women on the national team earned as little as 40 percent of what USMNT players earned.

Months after winning its third World Cup title, five of the biggest stars on the USWNT — Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, and Hope Solo — filed a federal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, charging the U.S. Soccer Federation (USSF) with wage discrimination.

Over a year later, the USWNT received significant changes to the team’s collective bargaining agreement. Members of the team will earn more money and get more resources. All of this–more than likely–will lead to more wins for the most successful soccer program in the world. Yet they still earn less than their male counterparts who failed to even qualify for next year’s World Cup.

Which leads to the most frustrating and disappointing element of women’s fight for equality and equal pay; no matter how many important strides women make in the sports field, they’re battle is fought on a treadmill.

The University of Connecticut Women’s basketball team won over 100 consecutive games recently. To many, there’s an asterisk because it’s the women’s game and not the men. Those UConn teams are barely discussed in the same breath as UCLA’s dynasty.

Pat Summitt is the winningest coach in NCAA history, but most attribute Mike Krzyzewski with that honor.

When the Minnesota Lynx defeated the Los Angeles Sparks for the WNBA championship, it added another title to an ever-growing list of accomplishments for Maya Moore. Many couldn’t get past the fact she was a woman.

The sexism Richard Deitsch refers to in his tweet isn’t limited to athletes. Those who cover sports experience the same vitriol and ignorance.

Cam Newton recently found himself in hot water over his reaction to a question from a female sports reporter.

He would later apologize. But his sentiment is a popular one. So much so a whole campaign #MoreThanMean was started to bring awareness to a startling amount of hate directed at women in sports media.

It seems male reporters who have just as much experience playing at an elite level as their women counterparts are given a pass merely for what’s featured between their legs.

The irony is there is nothing about women, and more specifically women in sports that would lead people to believe “the weaker sex” was an appropriate term.

In the 1996 Olympics, Kerri Strug clinched the Gold Medal for USA in team gymanstics by doing a vault on two torn ligaments in her ankle. Bethany Hamilton lost her arm due to a shark attack at 13 years old. Last year she finished third in the World Surf League’s Fiji Women’s Pro. Serena Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam title while 8 weeks pregnant in January at the Australian Open.

Men are revered for much less. Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game.” Willis Reed’s four point-barrage in the 1970 NBA Finals. SERENA WILLIAMS HAD ANOTHER HUMAN GROWING INSIDE OF HER!

It seems history continues to repeat itself. More than four decades after The Battle of the Sexes, men continue to use power, traditional gender stereotypes and money to maintain its stranglehold on inequality. And just like King v. Riggs, they too will soon be on the losing side.

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