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King: Change is slow but sure if women just stay the course

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There's a rumor going around that the WNBA Finals began Wednesday night, although a search through my local paper could find just a TV listing and some small type on the agate page. Perhaps there will be a box score and even a paragraph or two in today's local paper, but I'm not going to put the mortgage on it.

The women's final at the U.S. Open tennis tournament made prime time last Saturday night. Women's golf is entering its finest hours. But women's soccer still can't form a new league, women's softball is no longer an Olympic sport and women's professional basketball gets less respect in some outposts in the mainstream sports media than high school girls sports.

To explain why the WNBA is lost in the shuffle by the print media, we could chalk it up to September. We all know you can't squeeze another sport in edgewise this month, with baseball, college football and pro football on the docket, all in full bloom.

But, then again, this is September, closing in on Sept.20, to be exact, and for all female athletes, time really began on that day 32 years ago. From that day forward, things got better -- or at least were supposed to.

So, to make some sense of this mixed bag of wins and losses, there's no better person to talk to than Billie Jean King. If anyone can explain what's going on, the woman who beat Bobby Riggs is our best bet.

"Because 90% of the sports media is men, until we get into the male arena, they don't really care what we're doing," King said in a telephone interview. "That's really what my match with Bobby Riggs was about, what Annika Sorenstam (playing on the PGA Tour) was all about, what Babe Didrikson was all about in the '40s, playing on the PGA Tour.

"We also were very late into the marketplace (with pro leagues). Men were already established. ... I know a lot of guys who tell me they prefer watching women play basketball. But I also find that women don't support women enough. I think if we get through enough generations, we will. It will really add up over time. I keep hoping that after another generation or two, it will change.

"But right now, here's what women do: A mom gets the schedule (for a women's pro sports event), she opens up the schedule and says, 'What day am I going to take our group to the game?' Here's what a guy will do. He gets the schedule, and he says, 'I'll get season tickets.' Women have got to buy the season tickets, make it like a donation, and you'll figure out who's going to go later."

Billie Jean King, 61, has been saying these kinds of things, prodding the media, ruffling feathers, for a very long time. "I've felt the same way for 35-40 years," she said. "Thirty-five, 40 years? It's funny. When you read about history, it looks like it went really fast, but when you live it, it is so slow."

When the then 29-year-old King beat the 55-year-old Riggs in three straight sets, 90 million people worldwide watched on television, according to the insightful new book about the match, A Necessary Spectacle, by Selena Roberts. As another women's sports icon, Donna de Varona, told Roberts, "The guy was older and was this and that, but the truth is, it was a worldwide movement that needed a finishing sentence. And Billie Jean King gave it to us."

There's not a day that goes by that someone doesn't stop King to talk about it.

"From the feedback I've gotten from women, it empowered them for the first time," she said. "A lot of women who had never had the courage to ask for a raise, who had never followed their dreams, they went ahead and just did it. I walk out the door, and every day somebody talks about the match. And I meet a lot of men in their 40s who were anywhere from 8 to 16 in 1973, and they say it changed their life because they started to believe in girls and women and now they have a daughter and they insist that their daughter have equal opportunity. They are the first generation of men of the women's movement. They are our allies today."

King is co-founder of the coed World TeamTennis, now in its 30th season, which is holding its finals Friday and Saturday in Sacramento -- one of the two cities hosting the WNBA Finals, ironically enough. That's just one of her jobs. She also remains the voice of a movement.

"We're certainly far better off than we were 32 years ago, but we're still fighting some of the same fights. At the Women's Sports Foundation, we get calls every day: 'My girl has to practice on an inferior field.' 'My girl can't get enough equipment.' It's the same thing over and over."

But she knows some day the battles will be over. What about 32 years from now, she is asked. "If it's 50-50, if there's equal opportunity for boys and girls, I can rest in peace."

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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