On Dreaming and Practice: Lessons from Billie Jean King

Now more than ever we need to promote passionate, purpose-filled, embodied leaders, especially women. Truth-tellers, advocates for justice, visionary organizational leaders, and inspired philanthropists who use a gender and racial lens to guide their work need a larger stage. I believe that equity is our destiny. We will need wisdom, smarts, determination, and inspiration to execute the alternative to patriarchal/toxic masculine leadership models that don’t reflect our truths and even punish our voices.

Gloria Steinem reminds us, “Dreaming is a form of planning.” As a coach and consultant, I know this to be true. I’ve witnessed it make the difference time and time again, which is why we must be in the business of expertly implementing and executing the realities we know can define daily life for ourselves and others. This post is the first in a series highlighting bold women leaders I have had the pleasure of working with, coaching, and supporting. These fierce leaders have dreamed bigger for all of us.

An original and groundbreaking fierce leader is tennis legend Billie Jean King, and I am honored to have worked alongside her. One of the most powerful things I’ve learned from her is to regularly ask myself and now my clients, “What does winning look like?”  The effect of this question was clear every time… be bigger, be bolder, shine brighter. It’s a worthy question to ask yourself and ask your colleagues and family.  Social change leaders who ask themselves this question make a far greater impact because of this practice.

I’m proud to have worked with Billie Jean King, Dr. Donna Lopiano, Dr. Dorothy Blaney, Julie Foudy, Dominique Dawes, and many more excellent leaders in the 15 years I spent at the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF), so it is thrilling to see Billie Jean’s story on the big screen again. I am psyched that another generation of women and girls are learning about Billie Jean's fierce feminist life and career.

Billie Jean founded the WSF one year after her incredible win against Bobby Riggs to ensure that all girls have access to sports. When I was hired at WSF in my late 20s, after many years playing and coaching women’s basketball, I found a home—a place where my professional teammates and I performed and challenged ourselves daily in an all out effort to achieve excellence. We understood that expertise came through practice, repetition, and attention to detail. It wasn’t just something you stumbled upon. CEO Dr. Lopiano, also the Mother Theresa of gender equity in sports in my opinion, and Billie Jean’s leadership set the unyielding tone for this approach to success.

Athlete leaders and celebrities like Geena Davis and Holly Hunter (who played Billie Jean King in an Emmy award-winning TV special about "the match" in 2001) took up the cause, visitedCapitol Hill with us, spoke to funders, and did media interviews. We worked strategically and intentionally to change people’s attitudes and ideas of what women’s role in sports could be. In my experience, athletes know how to build movements. By movement I mean shifting culture, definitions, and behaviors of others. Passionate, committed practice did that. And, as a movement led by Billie Jean and all of us. We had a deep bench and we were practicing hard every day, nonstop.

Billie Jean King and Julie Foudy at Billie Jean's 60th Birthday Party

Billie Jean King and Julie Foudy at Billie Jean's 60th Birthday Party

The women’s sports movement has been filled with stories, good and bad, that have shocked people into action or change. For these moments, you want to be ready. Practice ensures readiness.

The 1996 Olympics in Atlanta saw women’s softball, soccer, synchro swimming, and beach volleyball in the games for the first time ever. All of the sudden a new reality for girls was created and Title IX is what made all of this possible. When the U.S. women’s teams won gold medals in basketball, softball, and soccer during these Olympics, it shone a light on what 20 years of Title IX plus exposure to coaching, resources, and supports could build for women.

In 2003, Annika Sorenstam took on the men at the Bank of America Colonial PGA tour stop amidst thousands of “Go Annika” buttons and the grumbles of only two male pro golfers thankfully. What a sea change from Billie Jean’s Battle of the Sexes match in 1973. (As fun as it is to view, the match truly divided the nation).  

We can go on about the bias that remains against women athletes today. Women athletes are still sexualized and sensationalized, not paid for “equal” work, and coverage of their accomplishments is still virtually non-existent in the sport media. To this day, race horses and dog racing can get more coverage in print and online media, and total media coverage of women’s sports is less than 4% of the total sports coverage. So let’s get back to dreaming for a moment:

  • Imagine that women were paid equal salaries to men in professional sports instead, for example, $72,000 average salary in the WNBA versus 6.2 million in the NBA.

  • Imagine women coaching men’s teams being as "normalized" in our culture the way men are for coaching women’s teams.  

  • Imagine a woman head of the United States Olympic Committee.

  • Imagine a young Latina girl being encouraged to compete in the US Open finals and more young African American girls being encouraged to become Olympic swimmers like the incredible Simone Manuel.

Knowing the research that says women who play team sports perform better in the workplace, why wouldn’t we want every girl to have access to sports and the opportunities that come along with sports? Real access of opportunity (economic and otherwise), for all girls IS dreaming bigger. Whenever we stand up and mobilize to get to the intentional, persistent work of gender equity through sports, we positively influence our economy, our leadership paradigm, our economy, and all of society.   

Billie Jean has willingly put her celebrity status out front for justice. She has always been distinctively and authentically curious and determined. She has lived a radical commitment to the strength of our multiplicity. And we must remember that the Battle of the Sexes match was a platform to stand up for the violence, inequitable treatment, and sexism women endured and protested in the 60s and 70s. Today, the film stands for the continued need for fierce leadership and a radical commitment to the girls and women of the next generation (because we are not there yet)!

Clearly, I’m reminded of this today seeing the protests by the WNBA Los Angeles Sparks and the NFL athletes, coaches, and fans #TakeAKnee. Changing culture and behaviors around racist violence against black women (#SayHerName) and men is justice worth fighting for. Athletes and sports command one of the largest stages for activism in the name of equity.

Thank you Billie Jean for making social activism and sports come to life for this intersectional feminist and for millions of others.