Billie Jean King: 'Women have to stick up for themselves and fight'

Story highlights

  • Tennis legend Billie Jean King enters pay equality debate
  • "What's morally the right thing to do," asks King.
  • Women soccer players taking on national federation over equal pay

(CNN)She's the woman who transformed the world for female sports stars, but the fight isn't over for Billie Jean King.

The issue of pay equality is very much back on the agenda after tennis administrator Raymond Moore recently courted controversy by stating that women pros should "get down" on their knees "every night" and thank Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for carrying the sport. He subsequently resigned.
    "It's more about what's morally the right thing to do over time," King told CNN's Christiane Amanpour Thursday in answer to a question about the challenges facing women in sport.
    "We can set a great example about getting the gender gap and salaries even. We can set an example. We are a leadership sport, we are the number one sport in leadership because we have men and women and we are leading."
    Tennis isn't the only sport facing divisions over pay equality.
    Five members of the U.S. National Women's team (USWNT) filed a a lawsuit Thursday demanding the nation's soccer governing body pay them the same amount as their male counterparts.
    "It's such a fight for change," added 12-time grand slam winner King. "Change is so slow and so difficult. Women have to stick up for themselves and fight for it.
    "We have a lot of men on our side and we need to work together as a team and make these things right because we set an example for the rest of the world.
    "Sport is a microcosm of society and it's important sports people take responsibility and step up and lead."

    'Battle of the Sexes'

    King, who set up the Women's Tennis Association in 1973, threatened to boycott the U.S. Open unless the winner of the ladies singles was awarded the same prize money as the men's champion.
    Her stance ensured Margaret Court won $25,000 at the 1973 tournament and dragged women's tennis out of the dark ages.
    That same year King famously defeated men's world No.1 Bobby Riggs in a match which was dubbed "Battle of the Sexes."
    It was a victory that was seen as a huge step forward for women's tennis and helped start the campaign for all grand slam tournaments to award equal prize money.
    After Moore's outburst, world No. 1 Novak Djokovic added fuel to the fire by claiming the men's game deserved more prize money because they attract bigger audiences.
    He was fiercely criticized by Andy Murray and Serena Williams, the women's world No.1, before taking to Facebook to apologize for his comments.
    "I want Djokovic, Federer and Murray and those guys -- plus the women -- to understand that we have an opportunity to make the world a better place," said King.
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    The 72-year-old King revealed that Djokovic had taken time to sit down with her and 18-time grand slam champion Chris Evert to apologize.
    "He kept talking about the prize money and I said to him: 'this is so much more about the prize money.'
    "I said I've always wanted us to be together as one association and it's not what we can do on the court, it's what we can do off.
    "You have the chance to be a leader, you can absolutely help change the world."

    Enough is enough

    Soccer stars Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Hope Solo have brought their complaint -- on behalf of all members of the women's team -- through the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal body that tackles workplace discrimination.
    In a statement, U.S. Soccer said that its " efforts to be advocates for women's soccer are unwavering."
    Tim Howard, the star goalie of the U.S. men's national soccer team (USMNT), told CNN he "understood" the women's action.
    "If they feel they are unjustly underpaid then without question, absolutely they should be unified and they should fight for their rights," Howard told CNN Thursday.
    The USWNT, which won the World Cup in Canada last year, has consistently outshone its male counterparts.
    It has won three World Cups and four Olympic golds while its victory in the 2015 World Cup final scored the best U.S. television rating ever of any soccer game -- men's or women's.
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    But the success achieved by the team has yet to lead to financial parity.
    "It's not fair," King said of the situation facing the USNWT.
    "They got the biggest ratings ever in World Cup. The women do deserve more and also it's a growth opportunity for the sport."
    According to Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer representing the five players, the women are paid between 28% and 62% less than men, depending on the kind of match.
    "The women's team does the identical work as the men's team, except they have outperformed in every way," he added.
    "The U.S. Soccer Federation made profit of $16 million on the women's team last year. It had a loss on the men's team."
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