Around the world the playgrounds are closed off, the playing fields empty.
Tennis nets have been taken down. Basketball courts locked. Youth sports have ceased to operate. Even recess at school is over, since there isn’t any school.
For Billie Jean King, this is a nightmare. The tennis icon understands the need to fight the coronavirus and is fully supportive of shelter-in-place orders. Yet for someone who spent her life pioneering and then promoting female participation in sports — at all levels — the idea of non-active girls threatens to bring a whole new host of problems.
“We want to keep the girls exercising and playing,” King said. “It helps not just physically, but mentally and emotionally, which we know many are at risk of suffering from right now.”
On Saturday, King is going to try to do something about it.
King and the Women’s Sports Foundation, which she founded in 1974, will partner with Yahoo Sports to stage a special live event with a slate of great female athletes in an effort to engage and inspire young athletes, or even non-athletes who just need to keep moving, during the stress and isolation of the coronavirus pandemic.
Among the stars participating: Carli Lloyd (soccer), Katie Ledecky (swimming), Chiney Ogwumike (basketball), Kendall Coyne Schofield (hockey), Scout Bassett (paralympian in track and field), Sabrina Ionescu (basketball), Katie Sowers (NFL), Condoleezza Rice (former Secretary of State) and, of course, King, the 12-time Grand Slam tennis tennis champion. The event will be hosted by journalist Cari Champion.
Viewers can ask questions of the attendees before and during the event via Twitter or Facebook by using the hashtag #WeKeepPlaying.
King has fought a million battles through the years seeking equality in sports and society. She never could have anticipated this one. In some ways, it brings the most dire of threats, even if it is, presumably, temporary.
Her goal has never been to create elite athletes. That was simply a byproduct. She just wanted every girl to have the chance to be the level of athlete they chose, to have the same opportunity the boys always do.
“Growing up I played lots of sports,” King said. “Then my dad sat me down and asked, ‘What do you want to be?’ Do you want to be a jack-of-all-trades or great at one thing?’ I said I wanted to be great and we concentrated on tennis.”
That was her choice. That was her chance.
[#WeKeepPlaying: How to watch Carli Lloyd, Katie Ledecky, Sabrina Ionescu at 4 p.m. ET Saturday]
She wants that for everyone and pushes parents not to try to create pros out of their daughters, but to create chances for them to find their own way.
“The most important thing is to connect with them,” King said. “My parents never asked if we won a game. Too many parents care about the end result. Stay in the process and be a life coach.”
That process is now a particular challenge. There are no leagues, no organized sports or even pickup games, no gyms or school yards. King sees sports as part of the total health and happiness of a person. Now more than ever.
The event will allow young athletes to interact directly with superstars, gaining motivation and advice on how to make the most of these trying times. Likewise, parents or community members can learn what they can do in ways big and small to keep them playing.
By streaming on Yahoo Sports, the event will have a free, global platform.
“We are in an unprecedented time and now more than ever it’s important to take care of yourself physically and emotionally,” said Guru Gowrappan, CEO Verizon Media. “Conversations like this always help us as a society to connect and share the range of emotions we are all feeling. Most importantly to know that we are not alone.
“We play an important role in leveraging our platform for good along with connecting people to their passions. We know what a difficult time this is for athletes … we hope this provides inspiration and hope to athletes around the world.”
For King, the coronavirus is just the latest challenge in a life of overcoming challenges. If you know her, you know she never gives up.
“It’s going to be an amazing event,” she said.
Her passion never wanes. Not even during a pandemic — especially during a pandemic.
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