Special to The Windham Eagle
Reading Billie Jean King’s autobiography, which was published this past summer, brings thoughts of Mount Rushmore to my mind.
The colossal mountainside rock sculpture of four American presidents’ profiles took 14 years for sculptor Gutzon Borglum and his son to complete. It was intended as a tribute to America’s birth (thus George Washington’s image), growth (Thomas Jefferson’s), development (Abraham Lincoln’s), and preservation (Theodore Roosevelt’s).
But since the memorial’s completion in 1941, historians more interested in uncovering truth than perpetuating unquestioning deification have pointed out some inconvenient facts. Washington and Jefferson owned (and traded in) human chattel. Lincoln’s freeing of the slaves was motivated more by political expediency than by any particular moral objection he had to “The Peculiar Institution.” And Roosevelt’s well-documented views regarding the capabilities and worthiness of peoples more darkly complected than himself are the very embodiment of white supremacy.
But should historical figures be condemned for holding views which were, in their day, just as commonplace amongst their contemporaries as open-mindedness, tolerance, and understanding are amongst the more enlightened, better-informed people of today?
If racism, sexism, misogyny, colonialism, ethnic cleansing, drug use, and/or being unfaithful to one’s spouse were retroactive disqualifiers, the massive sculpture in South Dakota’s Black Hills memorializing America’s eligible presidents would, if it existed at all, likely be known as Mount Jimmy Carter.
But back to Billie Jean: appropriately titled All In, her memoir is inspiring, frank, and often astonishing for its blunt depiction of some of the author’s less flattering qualities. It’s reasonable to assume that at least part of a writer’s motivation for producing a memoir would be to cast its protagonist in a flattering light, but Ms. King doesn’t pull any punches regarding a few notable missteps she’s taken in her life, some of which were, to her everlasting regret, hurtful to her family and others she truly cares about.
But aside from her dedicated commitment to fighting injustice based on race, gender, sexuality, nationality, or any other artificial dividing line, what comes through about the admittedly headstrong, uber-competitive Ms. King is her magnanimity. She possesses the ability to see the good in every human being she’s encountered over her six-plus decades in the spotlight, including those who were her bitter rivals on or off the tennis court. She ultimately befriended Bobby Riggs, the self-promoting “male chauvinist pig” who provided her opposition in the epic “Battle of the Sexes” winner-take-all $100,000 tennis match of 1973, and expresses respect for Margaret Court, arguably her greatest professional tennis adversary whose politics are, to put it mildly, the polar opposite of Ms. King’s.
This week the former tennis star and lifelong passionate advocate for equal rights turns 78 years old, but she and her wife Ilana Kloss will probably mark the occasion quietly. Ms. King has observed birthdays in subdued fashion ever since her 20th, which unfortunately fell on the day John F. Kennedy (whose subsequently revealed philandering makes him ineligible, by 21st century standards, for any future presidential memorials), was assassinated.
Were there a Mount Rushmore for American athletes who used their fame, even at great personal sacrifice, to selflessly advocate for fairness and the betterment of society, there’s little doubt Billie Jean King’s face would be one of those carved into the imaginary stone, right alongside Jackie Robinson’s, Muhammad Ali’s, and someone else’s.
But then, if infidelity were a disqualifier for the socially conscious athlete Mount Rushmore, Ali and Ms. King would both need replacing. But with whom? Bill Russell? Roberto Clemente? Colin Kaepernick?
Let the discussion begin, and the ongoing search for a flawless human being (living or dead) continue. <