The controversy over the NFL protests are missing the point.

By Anne VanderMey
October 11, 2017
October 11, 2017

Billie Jean King, the pioneering tennis star and subject of the new movie Battle of the Sexes, thinks that the NFL kneeling controversy is getting out of hand.

Football players have sparked fierce national debate by taking a knee during the national anthem as an act of protest against racial injustice. Even President Donald Trump has waded into the fray (“Get that son of a bitch off the field right now, you’re fired,” Trump said at a rally.) But speaking on Wednesday at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit, King called for a more even-handed approach.

“I wouldn’t do it the way [Colin] Kaepernick did it,” she said. “But that doesn’t matter, I have to respect that he was peaceful. … And they’re right, let’s face it.”

King, a singular pioneering figure for equality in sports, refuted the nation that athletics aren’t the place for political commentary.

When she was a teenager, she had an “epiphany,” she said, that she wanted to spend her life fighting for equality. The solution: Tennis. “I knew I had a chance, because tennis is a global sport and I would have a platform,” King said. “That’s what’s happening with the NFL. This is where they have their platform. Otherwise no one’s going to listening to them.”

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King said that if it had been her, she might have handled the optics differently—kneeling and then and then standing, or some combination. But she added that people who think that the NFL players are disrespecting flag are missing the point. “Some people have made it about the veterans the military, that’s not what they’re saying… many of these NFL players have family in the military,” King said. “They’re not saying that, so just calm down everybody.”

What they are saying is that racial inequality is still a problem in America: “People of color still aren’t getting a fair shake. They’re just not,” she said. That’s true of women as well as men. “You look at the salaries that women make, women of color always make the least.”

King has long been an advocate for equal pay regardless of race and gender. On Wednesday, she applauded CEOs who make an effort to make up the gap. “They need to step up and just make it happen,” she said. “They have to do it, they have to lead.”

She also gave some guidelines on how to agitate for equality when the deck is stacked against you. Her number one piece of advice for those who want to carry her torch: “Don’t take anything personally, that’s number one,” she said. “They’re talking about how they feel and what they think. It’s not about you, its them.”

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