Billie Jean King tells graduates to ‘give to life’ in commencement speech


Colin Boyle/Daily Senior Staffer

Billie Jean King speaks at Northwestern commencement. King discussed gender equality and gave life advice to graduates.

Ben Pope, Summer Editor

Billie Jean King came onstage at Northwestern’s commencement in traditional fashion, walking alongside University President Morton Schapiro as the Northwestern Symphonic Wind Ensemble played a conventional processional song.

Less than a hour later, the ensemble was playing the lively strains of “Philadelphia Freedom” and seven Northwestern tennis players were hitting balls into the seated rows of graduates as the 73-year-old former tennis star concluded her commencement speech.

As she has throughout her careers as a professional tennis player and a social activist, King tossed aside the stuffy conventions of tradition and discussed hot-button issues like equal pay and gender equality — and had some fun too — in her remarks to the Class of 2017 at Ryan Field on Friday.

“This class may be the first generation of women to actually see equal pay for equal work in their professional lifetimes,” King said. “But only if this class of 2017 and your contemporaries make strategic choices in getting more digital and STEM skills, and if businesses, government and academia provide crucial support.”

King, who received an honorary degree prior to her speech, added that it was “a privilege to be part of Northwestern community, a place where inclusion and equality are an important part of the culture.”

King, a 20-time Wimbledon champion, has long been a prominent spokesperson for LGBTQ and women’s rights. In 1973, King both founded the Women’s Tennis Association to demand equal pay and defeated Bobby Riggs in “Battle of the Sexes,” a series of man-vs.-woman tennis matches.

In 2009, she became the first female athlete to be awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“It’s important to have an open heart and mind and get to know people who don’t look like you or sound like you,” King said in a University news release prior to commencement. “Because they’re going to challenge you … but we’re going to grow from that.”

King, who was controversially outed as gay in 1981, was introduced on stage by SESP senior Jacob Rosenblum, who said he is also gay. Rosenblum thanked King for “working before I was born to set up the kind of society that would embrace me the way it has.”

King’s decades of unabashed advocacy reflected in her speech, too, as she encouraged graduates to act with the same determination to fight for their own causes.

“Freedom is never really won. You earn it and you win it in every generation,” she said. “Today, it’s time for your generation to win (freedom) and to shape the future.”

King’s speech also included some less serious moments.

After saying she was surprised how many people had asked her in recent weeks about her upcoming NU visit, she joked that “maybe it was painted on the rock.”

She closed with a funny story about the making of “Philadelphia Freedom,” the 1975 Elton John song that she inspired, before tennis balls fittingly cascaded into the first rows of the crowd of thousands.

And as far as lasting takeaways, King singled out one of her final lines as most important of all.

“It is not what we can get out of life, it is what we can give to life that matters,” she said. “That’s my favorite thing of the whole speech.”

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