An inappropriate honour for Billie Jean King


At this year's US Open tennis tournament, the National Tennis Center on Long Island, New York was renamed to Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. I think that this is totally inappropriate, and not just because it waters down the recognition extended to the late Arthur Ashe when the stadium on the same site was named after him. And no, I'm not sorry for being a party-pooper.

"The Philip Morris executives I know... are enlightened people who understand and acknowledge the possible hazards of smoking." Billie Jean King, December 2,1993

Discount coupon autographed by Billie Jean King King was a member of the Philip Morris (renamed to Altria) board of directors from 1999 through 2003. Philip Morris is the world's largest tobacco company, and the World Health Organization estimates that cigarettes cause over four million premature deaths each year. No, smoking is not a possible hazard, and King has an ethical blind spot about cigarettes that you could drive a truck through. Click here to view a “free pack” coupon that she autographed in 2001.

The number of women who smoke increased dramatically during the 1970's, and this increase is attributable to one of Philip Morris' most successful ad campaigns: Virginia Slims and “You've come a long way, baby.” One the elements of this ad campaign was the Virginia Slims tennis tour, and King, along with Martina Navratilova, was an enthusiastic promoter of this tour.

If you don't see the hypocrisy of promoting tennis as an exercise activity and a grossly unhealthy activity like smoking at the same time, I'll make one more try. King is regarded as an icon by many feminists for publicly acknowledging her bisexuality, as well as for having an abortion in 1971. Well, actually, she didn't have much choice in the “public acknowledgment” part, because she was the target of a palimony suit by Marilyn Barnett. She apparently hid her sexual preference for women from her husband, Larry King, when they married in 1965. (They divorced in 1985.)

Philip Morris/Altria's record on this sort of thing is mixed. They certainly like to sell cigarettes to women and gays. However, they have a lot of friends in Washington. (If they didn't, they would have been legislated out of business years ago.) One of these friends was Jesse Helms, a senator from North Carolina who used the Senate floor to say all sorts of unkind things about the “homosexual lifestyle”, and even introduced legislation to prohibit the use of Federal money to combat anti-gay discrimination. Philip Morris did more than contribute several million dollars to Helms' re-election campaigns (thus effectively paying for his microphone); they even gave $200,000 to a dubious charity, the Jesse Helms Citizenship Center. (See From adversary to target market, from the British Medical Journal.)

Helms is only the most blatant example. At the same time that they were buying off King, Philip Morris/Altria was funding many other politicians who are no friends of gays or feminists, such as President George W. Bush and former Vice-President Dan Quayle.

I've written elsewhere about the inappropriateness of connecting the sport of tennis to the tobacco industry; see Canadian Open Tennis Hall of Shame. The “du Maurier Open” and “Players Open” no longer exist. The United States Tennis Association should give the National Tennis Center back to Arthur Ashe.