Academic Ceremonies - Commencement
Commencement 2011 Speaker
Billie Jean King
Doctor of Letters
One of Life magazine’s 100 most important Americans in the 20th century, Billie Jean King is a legend both for championship tennis and breaking barriers for women athletes. In her career she won 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles, including a record 20 wins on the grass courts of Wimbledon.
In 1972, after capturing every Grand Slam singles title, King became the first female athlete to be named Sports Illustrated Sportsperson of the Year. She was also the first female athlete to win more than $100,000 in a year, a distinction King turned to revolution as men’s prizes were often more than three times as much as women’s. King founded the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, out of which came WomensSports magazine. She co-founded World TeamTennis, the groundbreaking co-ed professional tennis league and, in 2007, GreenSlam, an environmental initiative for the sports industry.
King’s most famous victory—said to empower women and educate men—was her 1973 defeat in three straight sets of former men’s champion Bobby Riggs, famous for mocking. In 2008 she authored a book to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the historic match, Pressure is a Privilege: Lessons I’ve Learned from Life and the Battle of the Sexes, as the press dubbed the event.
In the Smithsonian Museum exhibit Sports: Breaking Records, Breaking Barriers, King is one of six athletes chosen as more than a champion. “The rare athlete is a true hero…,” explains the exhibit’s website. “The performances, in and out of athletics, of these extraordinary men and women change attitudes and conditions, and strengthen their communities.”
For this work King has earned numerous honors, including the 2006 distinction of having the National Tennis Center, home of the U.S. Open, renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in honor of her contributions to tennis, sports and society on and off the court. She was also named Global Mentor for Gender Equality by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2008.
Most prominently, in 2009 King was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. But King’s push for gender and GLBT equality continues as she serves on the boards of the Women’s Sports Foundation, the Elton John AIDS Foundation and other endeavors.