Bille Jean King, the athlete who became one of the ‘greatest activists’


40 years ago this week, Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs in a tennis match billed as the “Battle of the Sexes.” It’s easy to think of it now as just a sports event, a gimmick but, at the time, it was a major moment in the fight for women’s rights. On Up with Steve Kornacki, sports journalists Selena Roberts, Mike Pesca, and Susan Ware joined Kornacki to discuss how King’s career and activism helped the movement for gender equality, and what still needs to be done.

Debates about feminism and equality and “leaning in” still rage in popular culture today, but Sunday’s guests all agreed that these debates would be very different if it weren’t for the activism that King engaged in during and after her career. She founded an organization dedicated to promoting women in sports, threatened to boycott the US Open unless it paid women the same prize money as men, and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As Pesca put it, “one of the greatest athletes was also the greatest activists.”

Ware, who wrote a book about King and her legacy, also used the conversation to push back against recent reports that Riggs lost the match intentionally, a rumor that proves how enduring sexism can be.


Bille Jean King, the athlete who became one of the 'greatest activists'