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FROM THIS EPISODE

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

This past Monday night most of the great women athletes of both yesteryear and today gathered at a black tie gala in New York to raise money for Billie Jean King's Women's Sports Foundation. Billie Jean King wasn't a country club kid. She came from the public courts right here in Long Beach. The first day she ever touched a racquet, at age 10, she came home to boldly declare two things to her mother. First, she said, "Mom, I'm going to be the best tennis player in the world." Next, she vowed, "I'm going to make sure the black girls at school get a chance to play, too."

Billie Jean, by virtue of her Battle-of-the-Sexes extravaganza match against Bobby Riggs, will forever be linked to women earning equal prize money for their talents, but the truth is that Billie Jean has always been about grass-roots equal opportunity.

About the same time she was thrashing Riggs in the Astrodome, she founded the Women's Sports Foundation. Yes, the nonprofit over the years has served the elite among women athletes--helped professionals land sponsorships, guided top-flight college players to scholarships. But the lion's share of the their work has been focused on the masses, making sure thousands of girls experience both the joy and the self-esteem that comes from playing sports. Sports have become such a star vehicle these days...we read about the rich and the famous athletes every day, to the point that we tend to forget that sports—especially in this era when phys ed is being cut in so many of our schools--actually serve a crucial physical and mental health role in our society.

Fifteen years ago, Billie Jean was looking for someone to bring her vision of sports for all girls in America to the Foundation. Her search led her to an accomplished former athlete and academic, and thus began Donna Lopiano's driven tenure as CEO of the Foundation, a period of influential magnitude that came to its end this Monday night in New York.

Donna Lopiano had been an extraordinarily gifted athlete out of Connecticut, the top softball pitcher of her day. Post sports, Donna became Athletic Director at the University of Texas and brought 18 National titles to UT. At the Women's Sports Foundation, she helped transform a nation of girls who were largely not allowed to play sports into a generation of high school and college athletes playing in huge numbers under the protection of Title IX.

So many of those girls who got their first travel grants, their first pair of spikes, under the auspices of the Foundation now give testimony to how deeply sports evolved their lives. More than four out of five executive businesswomen, 82%, in the US today played sports growing up. Women such as Condoleezza Rice and astronaut Sally Ride connect their success with their history as young athletes.

As Donna Lopiano leaves the Women's Sports Foundation, she has set the sights of Billie Jean's staff on the inner city, where obesity, juvenile diabetes, and poor body image are epidemic. Across the cities of America, 78% of 17-year old girls are unhappy with their bodies. One in six girls is obese. One in three inner city girls gets pregnant by the age of 20. Lopiano's wealth of research over the past fifteen years has categorically proven that playing sports is the preventative solution to these health risks and factors of low self-esteem.

As one former athlete, I can state that sports led me to a wonderful career, worldwide travel, lifelong friends. But the overriding boon that came from those years of practice and competition is a deep sense of self-confidence in all aspects of life. Bravo to Billie Jean King and Donna Lopiano for making it their life's work to enable as many girls as possible to capture that same feeling of self-worth.

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.

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