Billie Jean King addresses the USC Annenberg class of 2024 on May 10, 2024
Sports icon and equality activist Billie Jean King speaks at USC Annenberg's 2024 commencement ceremony.
Photo by Greg Grudt

Billie Jean King offers USC Annenberg graduates wisdom from a champion — and a sporty surprise

After sports icon and equality activist Billie Jean King closed out her remarks at USC Annenberg’s 2024 commencement ceremony, she added in a puckish surprise, grabbing her racquet and volleying tennis balls high into the air for graduates to catch. 

A lucky dozen or so came away with keepsakes of the moment. But all in attendance received the advantage of encouraging words from one of Life magazine’s “100 Most Important Americans of the 20th Century.”

After briefly surveying the disruptions that the Class of 2024 has encountered, from the pandemic to the cancellation of the university’s main commencement ceremony, she said, “You survived the physical, mental and emotional challenges, and it’s my hope that you will be stronger because of it. 

“Remember, champions adjust.”

Indeed, King knows what it takes to be a champion — in both senses of the word. On the tennis court, she earned her place in the International Tennis Hall of Fame with 39 Grand Slam titles and a still-unparalleled 20 Wimbledon championships. Off the court, the Long Beach native was a leading advocate for equal rights, a personal campaign that paved the way for Title IX civil rights protections and pay equity for women and men in tennis. 

Her dual missions had converged in at least one fabled episode. In 1973, King took up the Battle of the Sexes challenge from 1940s-era men’s tennis champ and self-proclaimed chauvinist Bobby Riggs. She would defeat him in straight sets before a worldwide audience exceeding 90 million, a story later adapted into an award-winning feature film.

King addressed 1,260 doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s degree graduates in communication, journalism, public diplomacy and public relations, who gathered on May 10 at McCarthy Quad. With the perspective of a single person who has made such an indelible cultural mark, she issued a call to action to a cohort facing major shifts in the media industry.

“You are the next generation of storytellers,” she said. “You are the change makers, and with that comes opportunity and responsibility. You have an opportunity to be part of history, a chance to write your own story. The more you know about history, the more you know about yourself and the more you can shape the future. You also have a responsibility to get the story right.”

She anchored her remarks with brief retellings of two major turning points in her life. The first featured a 12-year-old King, then a tennis neophyte, looking around at the other players at the Los Angeles Tennis Club and noticing the utter lack of diversity. Seeing nothing but white, she wondered, Where is everyone else?

“I already knew as a girl, I was a second-class citizen,” she said. “And I knew my sisters of color, those living with disabilities and others who have been marginalized had it worse than I did. That was the day I dedicated my life to equal rights and opportunities for everyone.”

Further along her arc — some 20-plus years into her tennis career — King was tested personally and professionally by an event beyond her control. She noted previously that the media were friends and partners to her colleagues while they built up the profile of women’s professional tennis in the 1970s. One of her tests in life was when she was outed as a gay woman in 1981, when homophobia was far more prevalent and treated as acceptable in the American mainstream. 

King was urged by her lawyer and her publicist to vehemently deny the reports. She chose the truth, accepting the loss of millions of dollars in endorsements that followed in its wake. 

“It was one of the darkest moments of my life, but it was also one of the most honest moments for me,” she said. “It has helped me live an authentic life. We are the most productive and successful when we are our authentic selves.”

Musing further on the incident, King relayed a personal insight that bridged the two stories: “One thing I have learned is, you never really understand inclusion unless you have been excluded.”

Earlier in her comments, she offered advice to spur graduates on in honing their craft and hearten them during periods of difficulty.

“One thing champions — and I mean champions in sports and in life — always do is practice their strengths and continue to improve their weaknesses,” King said. “Your mistakes are not failures. They are feedback. Everything is feedback.”

USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay similarly reflected on the theme of hardship resulting in growth during her remarks leading off the ceremony. She told the 2024 graduates that for anything they may have lost out on, they should also keep a clear-eyed view of how much they gained.

“You’ve developed remarkable grit and grace, fortitude and agility, learning so many more things — inside the classroom and out — than you thought you would,” she said. “Use what you have learned, the strength you have developed. Own that. You’ve earned it. You are incredibly well prepared for both the daunting challenges and enormous opportunities that lie ahead.”

King would later enumerate some habits of mind to help when rising to challenges and realizing opportunities.

“Be curious, and be alert,” she said. “Be nimble, and never lose sight of your vision. Be authentic, and don’t let others define you. You define yourself.”

In concluding her address, King added three maxims she and her friend Ed Woolard, the late American businessman, formulated together based on their observations of characteristics shared by successful leaders. 

“One, relationships are everything,” she said. “Two, keep learning and keep learning how to learn. Three, be a problem-solver and an innovator.” 

Before the racquet and tennis balls came out for her playful coda, King left the graduates with her favorite quotation from a forerunning activist, Coretta Scott King.

The commencement speaker recited, “‘Struggle is a never-ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation.’”

She added, “And now it’s your turn!”

Watch the full address here: