98% of Winning is Showing Up

By, Yasir Afzal & Maxwell Manchester

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This fall, the Virginia Commonwealth University’s College of Humanities and Sciences hosted tennis legend Billie Jean King in Richmond where she gave a moving talk about her journey as a woman, as a professional athlete and as a member of the LGBTQ community.

King was born in Long Beach, California to conservative and homophobic parents. She grew up during an era when women couldn’t even get a credit card without a man signing off on it first. Back in her heyday in the 1980’s, pay disparity between male and female professional athletes was an astonishing 12:1. An advocate for equality, who happens to be a tennis superstar with 39 Grand Slam titles and 20 Wimbledon titles under her belt, she has made it her mission to promote inclusion and equality for all women.

In 1972, Title IX—which prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in any federally funded education program or activity—became law. The passage of Title IX set the stage for women who wanted to become professional athletes to achieve increased opportunities in a heavily male-dominated arena.

In 1973, a famous misogynist professional tennis player named Bobby Riggs begged King for a “Battle of the Sexes” match so he could solidify the notion that men still dominated the world of professional tennis in a post-Title IX world. King accepted the match, not for the money or publicity, but because she wanted to beat him for social change. This was an opportunity to show that women could play tennis just as well, if not better, than men. She completely obliterated him! After her victory, she co-founded World Team Tennis, a mixed-gender professional tennis league with a team format.

In 1981, tragedy struck King’s life when she was outed after having an affair with a woman. She experienced an intense fallout with her parents, husband (Larry King), teammates and the world. Overnight she lost all of her endorsements. It seemed like the world had given up on her—but she didn’t see it that way. In fact, King noted that being outed allowed her to find her true self. After the scandal rocked her world, she picked herself back up and returned to her passion: tennis. As she recovered from being outed, it was her inner strength and love for her daughter that inspired her famous quote, “98% of winning is showing up.”

In 2009, President Obama presented King with the Presidential Medal of Freedom—the nation’s highest civilian award—for her work and success in both her athletic and political life. Looking to the future, King stressed how important it is that we deal with homophobia in sports.

King believes that staying true to your authentic self is imperative in a world that tries to force you to fit into a mold that is considered normal. “Secrets never work. You should never have two jobs—one to ‘fit in’ and one to be yourself. It’s exhausting.”

At the end of her talk, she revealed her three keys to success: 1) relationships are everything; 2) keep learning; and, 3) be a problem solver. She challenged the audience to continue the charge towards achieving true equality for all Americans.