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DIANE PUCIN

Billie Jean Is Blowing Smoke at Her Responsibility to Youth

October 22, 1999|DIANE PUCIN

Loyalty is a good thing. It is a quality to be proud of. A loyal person is a good person, a good friend, someone of good character.

Except.

Except when you read that Billie Jean King, pioneer of women's professional tennis and an outspoken proponent of equality for women's sports, has joined the board of directors of Philip Morris International, a tobacco company that provided the first big, brassy sponsor of women's pro tennis, Virginia Slims, a brand of cigarette aimed at women.

There is an immediate clue that King might not be totally comfortable with her decision to accept the position and its compensation of $80,000 in salary and stock options that directors receive: A public relations spokesman says King will not talk about her new job.

King, a good, decent, smart, enthusiastic woman of uncommon athletic talent and uncommon strength of purpose, can usually not be stopped from talking.

Always King has been ahead of her time. She was there at the beginning of the professional women's tennis tour. So she will talk and talk about playing for little prize money, little glory. About how she traveled anywhere, any time and if only a few hundred people showed up, that was fine with King because she was convinced those few hundred people would love women's tennis and tell other people what a great new thing was happening.

Of course, King loves to talk about how her groundbreaking match against Bobby Riggs was a key moment in the movement to provide women with equal chances to play sports.

It was this macho match, played on national television and hyped to the hilt, that got people talking about women athletes and how maybe they deserved some funding and attention.

King beating Riggs, who was bombastic but who was also past middle age, made people notice that women could play sports, play them well and draw people to watch them. And after that, King was a founder of the Women's Sports Foundation. When King would get money from speeches or work for corporations, she wanted a charity that would help women's athletics to give her money to. So she started one.

King will talk for hours about World Team Tennis, her creation. King believes a team tennis format, where men and women play together, could be the savior of the sport. She will tell you how tennis has trouble attracting fans because no one can ever be sure that the top draws, the Pete Samprases, the Andre Agassis, the Williams sisters, will be around by the second or third or fourth rounds. "In team tennis, though," King says, "you know what you will be getting."

So it was that during a conference call, the subject of King and Philip Morris had to be approached differently. The Women's Tennis Assn. is still searching for a big-money sponsor. After Virginia Slims ended its sponsorship of the WTA tour, by mutual agreement it was always reported, the WTA had brief contracts with Kraft Foods and international software manufacturer Corel. Now, there is no one. Whenever the topic of sponsorship is brought up around the tour, it is whispered that nowadays women's tennis couldn't afford to associate itself with a product like Virginia Slims.

This, King says, makes her sad. This is a question she will answer. About what she believes is good about Philip Morris and about what she thinks is wrong about us.

"Virginia Slims stepped forward for women's tennis when no one else would," King says. "They helped us advance the sport and awareness about tennis. It's so easy now to blame people. Look, I know about the dangers of smoking. I understand that and I don't smoke. I'm overweight myself. I eat too much and I eat some of the wrong things. It's my own fault. You have to take responsibility for yourself and that's a problem now. Nobody wants to take responsibility.

"Philip Morris is one of the best corporations I've been associated with. They're starting a campaign now to help keep kids from smoking."

King is right in some of what she says. No adult can complain about not knowing the hazards of smoking. If you smoke, it is your responsibility to stop or cope with the consequences. Yes, cigarette companies advertise in a way to make smoking seem attractive, but there is also, on every cigarette package, a government-mandated health warning.

But here is what I would like to ask King. How can you, who have done so much good for women athletes, serve on the board of directors of a company that helped increase smoking among young girls?

According to an article published in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. in 1994, smoking rates increased 110% among 12-year-old girls six years after the introduction of women-oriented cigarette brands such as Virginia Slims.

Write all the warnings you want on cigarette packages or beer cans or bottles of Scotch, but 12-year-olds aren't going to pay attention. Should their parents have responsibility? Certainly. But a parent is not in the school bathroom when one 12-year-old says to another, "Try this. It's cool."

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