The 2007 Billie Awards: Another of Billie Jean King’s legacies

 
 

Several years ago, Billie Jean King figured out that sometimes, if you want something to happen, you have to do it yourself. She wanted equality in tennis, so she started a tennis tour: the WTA. She wanted equality in women’s sports, so she built her own sports organization for women: the Women’s Sports Foundation. And when she wanted to honor women in sports, she created two separate events.

The Annual Salute to Women in Sports is held in October, and specifically honors the achievements of female athletes and those who have contributed to the landscape of women’s sports. In April, Billie hosts the Billie Awards, which “recognize media excellence in women’s sports and physical activity.” The Annual Salute has been around for 27 years, while the Billies event is only in its second year.

I chatted with Billie Jean King at the 2007 Billies a few weeks ago. “It’s not just about famous athletes,” said King. “Tonight is about the celebration of women’s sports coverage in the media. Women only get about eight percent of the sports coverage in the news from the major sports outlets.” About five percent of that is the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, and three percent of that is the Sports Illustrated cheerleaders photo gallery. When I told Billie Jean I was covering sports for AfterEllen, she high-fived me.

I also talked to Sharon Stone at the Billies. To understand my conversation with her, you have to understand my decades-long obsession and frustration with the lack of coverage of women’s sports. For years, I have been Googling “lesbian sports,” with the hope that stories about lesbian athletes would start showing up. And for years, the primary result of my searching was a bizarre story about Sharon Stone‘s appreciation of “lesbian sports.” The Associated Press and every other media outlet covered it. It’s still up, on the Sun Online.

Imagine my reaction, then, when I got to the Billies and found myself face-to-face with Sharon. I walked up to her and said, “So, I understand you like lesbian athletes.” She looked at me with those ice-pick eyes. So I told her my Google tale. I would rather not transcribe the entire painful conversation that followed, but I will send you the tape if you want to hear it.

When I turned around from Sharon Stone ice-picking me with her eyes, I spotted Marlee Matlin. Her interpreter, however, was paying attention to Sharon Stone, not me. All I know in sign language is “Kumbaya,” from Sunday school when I was a kid. So I just stared at her. She stared back. I asked her how she likes The L Word. I did this by making an “L” shape with my hand. She finally turned around and grabbed her interpreter. We had a brief conversation, during which her interpreter answered my questions in an annoyed would-rather-be-talking-to-Sharon voice.

What brings you to the Women’s Sports Foundation dinner?
Marlee: I was invited by my friend Billie Jean. And I am a very big sports fan as well.

Who is your favorite female athlete?
Marlee: The entire Rutgers women’s basketball team is my favorite team.

How has being on The L Word been?

Marlee: Nothing but fun.

After that, I met a couple of tennis players who were at the historic match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King in 1973. They introduced me to Rosie Casals, who has a very cute butch look going on these days. She was the announcer for that famous tennis match, and was a kick-butt doubles tennis player in her own right. She now owns her own sports marketing company for women, called Sportswoman Inc.

All in all, it was an interesting night at the Billies. Let’s hope that by honoring media excellence in women’s sports, Billie Jean King will ultimately foster more coverage of women athletes. That way I won’t have to endure Sharon’s ice-pick eyes next year.

 
 

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