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Equality advocate, sports icon named Commencement speaker

Billie Jean King to deliver address to Northwestern's Class of 2017

Billie Jean King
Billie Jean King

EVANSTON - Billie Jean King, pioneering advocate for equal rights and opportunities and a global sports icon, will deliver this year’s commencement address at Northwestern University.

Long a champion of social change and equality, King is widely known for her advocacy for gender equity and gay rights in sports and in public life. She successfully campaigned to equalize tennis prize money and, in 2009, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. 

Said former President Barack Obama, when he presented the medal: "We honor what she calls 'all the off-the-court stuff' — what she did to broaden the reach of the game, to change how women athletes and women everywhere view themselves, and to give everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation — including my two daughters — a chance to compete both on the court and in life."

Northwestern’s 159th commencement ceremony will begin at 9:30 a.m. Friday, June 16, in Ryan Field on the Evanston campus.

A household name during her tennis career, King was ranked six times as the year’s number one women’s tennis player and won 39 Grand Slam singles, doubles and mixed doubles titles, including a record 20 championships at Wimbledon.

Many would argue that one of King’s most memorable matches occurred in 1973 when she defeated Bobby Riggs in the legendary “Battle of the Sexes.” A great moment in sports history, the win empowered women and educated men. Barely a year after the passage of Title IX, the tennis match drew a television audience of 50 million, and King walked away with a $100,000 winner-take-all purse.

One of the 20th-century’s most respected women, King was named Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsperson of the Year in 1972 and one of Time magazine’s Women of the Year in 1975. 

King is the founder of the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative, the Women’s Tennis Association and the Women’s Sports Foundation, and she is the co-founder of World TeamTennis.  She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990.

King has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQIA community. She is a founding board member of the Elton John AIDS Foundation and was in the first class of inductees in the National Gay and Lesbian Sports Hall of Fame. She was among the delegation of athletes whom President Obama chose to represent the United States at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. 

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