As I mentioned in my last post, I’m reviewing James Blake’s excellent Ways of Grace chapter by chapter so as not to miss anything. Of course I will miss things anyway, so please, buy the book.
His first chapter “Early Trailblazers: Accidental Activists” is devoted to those athletes who were forerunners of social protest, whether they set out to be or not, and thus faced the most severe consequences for their beliefs–or really, for daring to play sports at all. Blake starts with baseball’s great Jackie Robinson, but devotes most of the chapter to Billie Jean King, his friend, colleague, and idol.
My reading of this chapter was well-timed. The movie Battle of the Sexes had finally come to my tiny town, two weeks after its limited open on the coasts. I went with my twelve year-old son, his friend, and his friend’s mother. Go ahead and watch the film because why wouldn’t you. The tennis is impressively rendered, LGBT pride issues are featured prominently, and, for once, Emma Stone did not irk the shit out of me. That said, you’ll learn a lot more from James Blake’s book about what Billie Jean King risked, lost, and won when she faced Bobby Riggs.
For example, while the film concentrates on the USTA’s rejection of Billie Jean King once she formed the Women’s Tennis Association, Blake takes pains to note that King first lobbied for women players to join the ATP, but the men wouldn’t have it. The irony Blake drives home is that the high profile Battle of the Sexes, watched by millions in the era when ABC owned sports broadcasting, didn’t just raise the profile of women’s tennis. It raised the profile of ALL tennis. Tennis, hitherto a country club sport, was suddenly hot. After King beat Riggs, tennis courts in parks were booked solid. My mother in the mid-seventies enrolled me in tennis lessons in one of these parks. I remember it clearly.
The point Blake is making is that King didn’t just make money for herself. She didn’t make money for women. She made money for TENNIS. And she didn’t stop with her victory over Riggs. The following year, she founded World Team Tennis, increasing the visibility of tennis as a co-ed sport.
The movie Battle of the Sexes ends, of course, with Billie Jean King’s victory, and gives a few cursory notes about the amicable divorce of the Kings. This left my son and his friend–both queer-identified–wanting more information on King’s coming out. Was she out after the Battle of the Sexes? How did she managed to be out and simultaneously married to a man?
Perhaps not imagining an audience of gender-queer, inquiring twelve-year olds, the film completely skips over an episode Blake does not: King’s forced coming out in a palimony suit launched by Marilyn Barnett, long-time partner featured in the film. The 1981 lawsuit made still-married King’s sexual orientation a matter of public record. Her privacy thus compromised, Billie Jean King gave a press conference in which she admitted to the affair with Barnett.
Within twenty-four hours of that press conference, Blake tells us, all her endorsements were gone. Credit to James Blake for going where the film wouldn’t. His book enters the 1980s, where activism took a relative lull, the Reagan years reviving respectability politics.
Blake’s chapter ends with a long transcript of King’s conversation with Blake about equality. I’m glad Blake left it for us to read in quotations, because King’s voice here is important. She makes clear that sports has never been just about sports. That it never could be for her, and never was from the moment she picked up a racket. Born into relatively humble circumstances, she saw sports as a way to get a platform to address inequality.
Here Billie Jean King gives us language to counter those who say that in choosing your sports heroes, you should only look at their achievements on the court, rather than have their politics affect your opinion of them, or your enjoyment of the game. For Billie Jean King, the ethos of the athlete is important.
To me I never felt I knew Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as human beings. For a while they dominated sports. I always felt that they were on a pursuit of excellence. I can understand that, especially operating at their level athletically. But what did they feel about society? What did they feel about people of color? What did they think? They never talked about their personal take on those things.
We love our sports heroes, King reminds us, because they are human, and when they diminish that humanity, they diminish our ability to connect with them. Blake quickly notes that he agrees with King. He bemoans the period of quiescence that followed the activism of the 1970s, and lauds its resurgence in athletes like LeBron James, Kaepernick, and (more recently) Steph Curry.
The last paragraph in the chapter is another long quote from King, who talks about seeing her father, a firefighter, leave for work. As she watched him walk out the door, she wondered if he would he ever make it back. Each time he went to work, he risked his life for the betterment of others. Athletes, King and Blake suggest, could in that frame stretch themselves to do their bit for others, even if it costs them.