If You Like Tennis And Feminism, Watch “American Masters: Billie Jean King”

It’s a good documentary, but more than that, it’s important to remember what a transformative figure she was.

Larry and Billie Jean King. PBS

In its May 19, 1975 issue, Sports Illustrated published an insane profile of Billie Jean King, written by Frank DeFord. The story must have been crazy even then, but it is particularly nuts reading it 28 years later.

Here are just a few examples of its madness (I’ve italicized the especially bizarre/delightful bits):

“A British political writer who has studied Billie Jean swears that she and Henry Kissinger are the only successful tri-personalities in the world: there is a private Kissinger and King, a public one of each, too, and a third overseer ego that dispassionately watches over the other two personalities and guides them in their conduct. Make no mistake, this broad can be an artful con when she wants to.”

“The bald fact is that Billie Jean King, athlete, ex-el chubbo, bespectacled, flat, waffled, stubby, has become something of a sex symbol. Movie stars have asked her out.”

“Some of the interest in her most private life is more than genially searching; it borders on raw inquisition. Alone, perhaps, of any public figure, she has been asked point-blank if she is a Lesbian. She denies it.”

Wait, just read the whole article. It’s revealing about King and women’s tennis and women’s sports and 1975.

And if you’re going to watch the American Masters documentary about Billie Jean King — which you should if you like tennis and women’s history (it premieres on PBS Tuesday, Sept. 10 at 8 p.m.) — reading that story also provides an interesting context for King’s evolution. Now, she is an unabashed feminist and LGBT activist; then, she was saying things like, “Women’s lib can be so negative, so defensive, so narrow-minded,” and, “Dammit… what do people want? I just love Larry.” (Larry being her husband, Larry King — but not that Larry King. The article is even called “Mrs. Billie Jean King!” Have I mentioned you should read it?)

The documentary, directed by James Erskine, does gloss over these complicated wrinkles in its (pleasing, fun-to-watch, celebratory) hug of its subject, so it’s good to go in knowing them. King did not come out willingly, but was the first outed athlete, which the film delves into — her former lover and secretary, Marilyn Barnett, sued King for palimony in 1981. In the documentary, King calls the experience her “darkest moment” and “horrible.”

In this clip, Hillary Clinton; Valerie Jarrett; King’s brother, Randy Moffitt; and Elton John talk about King as a gay rights icon. And we meet King’s partner!

In reaction to the lawsuit, King held a press conference during which she admitted she’d had a relationship with Barnett. It’s a famous moment — and one I remember being confused by as a kid. The press conference is not on YouTube nor does the Paley Center have it in its collection (a publicist from WNET told me CBS owns the rights), so if you want to see this small turning point in the arc of LGBT history, American Masters: Billie Jean King is your chance.

The documentary draws a direct line between the out-and-proud lesbian Billie Jean King is today and that moment, but it actually took awhile. At the press conference itself, King said: “I made a mistake. I will assume that responsibility. I discussed it with Larry. In some ways, I think we’re much closer today than we’ve ever been, and our marriage is stronger.”

At the Television Critics Association Press Tour in August, King talked about how confused she was at the time. “The essence was I was outed, and at that time, I was still trying to find myself,” she said. “I had asked Larry for a divorce, and he didn’t want a divorce. I mean, it was very difficult, and my poor parents are, you know, homophobic. I grew up homophobic. So you can imagine this challenge. I mean, I didn’t get comfortable in my own skin until I was 51 about being gay.”

But it ended up being for the best. “The truth does set you free eventually, yes,” King told journalists.

The 40th anniversary of King’s victory over Bobby Riggs in the Battle of the Sexes — a victory whose cleanliness was recently contested by Don Van Natta Jr. in ESPN magazine — is Sept. 20. And King turns 70 on Nov. 22. Watching American Masters: Billie Jean King is a happy way to celebrate those two events and to put the accomplishments of the woman DeFord predicted would be remembered “as the most significant athlete of this century” into their appropriate context.

A prediction that came true.

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