Tennis star Billie Jean King, tired and emotionally spent, said yesterday she was grateful for the support shown by her family, friends, business associates and fellow players following her admission Friday that she once had a homosexual affair with her former secretary, who is now suing her for lifetime support in a bizarre "palimony" case.
King said in a telephone interview that she was surprised and heartened by the sympathetic response of the press, players, sponsors and promoters to the announcement she made at a Los Angeles press conference on Friday.
"I expected the absolute worst, and said to myself that anything I got beyond that was fortunate," she said. "I've been a very fortunate person. . . bI think that's really important, that people have accepted me and said, 'Let's weather this storm together.'"
She said she decided to acknowledge the affair because she thought it was the only honest thing to do, even though she expected the public's perception of her to change and greatly reduce her worth on the endorsement and appearance market.
But the initial reaction from players and officials of the women's tour, sponsors, her agents, and the companies with which she has contracts has been remarkably supportive, she said.
"Everyone has been absolutely fantastic. I was astounded. And I really appreciate it, because the press and the public can think anything they want to about this," said King, who knows that negative fallout may still result.
"I think this situation is going to be very painful. It's not over by any means. Other people are going to have to bear the burden of a mistake I made, and I don't like that.
"I just hope that people have compassion and understanding for what I'm going through and what my family is going through. If people want to sit in judgment, that's their right. We'll see how compassionate and forgiving people really are. I mean, it's up to them," King said.
King said she was "dead tired," having hardly slept since Tuesday, when Marilyn Barnett, who was her traveling secretary, road manager, and confidante in the early 1970s, filed suit against her in Los Angeles Superior Court.
Barnett, 32, now a paraplegic, claimed in the suit that she and King were lovers, and that King had promised her lifetime support. Under California's landmark Marvin decision, which allows for property settlements for unmarried couples who have lived together, Barnett is seeking a share of property King acquired during their affair, including title to a Malibu beach house where Barnett has lived since 1972.
King denies that she ever promised property or support to Barnett, who was paralyzed in a fall last October from the balcony of the Malibu house owned by King and her husband, Larry. The Kings have recently attempted to evict Barnett from the house, which they intended to sell.
"It's just unfortunate that I had to get involved with a crazy," said King. She says she is bitterly disappointed with Barnett for filing the suit, which she considers an invasion of privacy.
"I wish that nobody else had to deal with it, but unfortunately, they do. That's the killer. There are my parents, Larry, our friends. I don't like the other women tennis players being hassled, which they are. The National Enquirer was down at the tournament in Orlando, offering $5,000 to any players who would talk. It's sad that so many people have to go through this ordeal with me."
Ted Tinling, director of communications for the Toyota Series of women's tournaments, including this week's Tournament of Champions at Orlando, Fla., said: "We've been absolutely plastered with reporters, stringers, agents, and the National Enquirer haunting us, two feet behind everybody all day and night, offering money to various people to spill the beans. It's been quite hectic."
Despite the immediate furor, few insiders think that King's revelation and the scrutiny that is sure to follow will have any significant adverse effect on the woman's tour, which she helped found in 1971 and almost single-handedly promoted into an artistic and commercial success, or on King's stature as one of the most influential athletes in history.
Organizers and financial backers of women's tournaments, and the professionals who play in them, expressed almost unanimous support yesterday for King, lauding her honesty and courage in publicly admitting the affair with Barnett. For the most part they said they are confident that the public will respond with the compassion and understanding King has asked for.
"I don't think it's really going to affect the tour that much because of the way Billie Jean came out and admitted the truth," said Australian pro Wendy Turnbull, treasurer of the Women's Tennis Association (WTA), the women players' guild of which King is president.
"There are going to be some people who condemn her and send her hate letters because of it, but I think the average person is going to think a lot more of her for being so gutsy and honest. I think they'll respect and admire her for that."
Pam Shriver of Lutherville, Md., who also is playing in the Orlando tournament, said a number of women pros met informally Friday night and decided to send a telegram of support to King, but did not do so only because they were not sure where she could be reached. King was in Los Angeles today, and said she would remain there until Tuesday, when she will fly to Tokyo to participate in a doubles tournament.
"I don't think any of the players will have lost any respect for Billie Jean, as far as what she's done for us as a group," said Shriver. "In the last 15 years, she has basically made women's tennis, and you can't take that away from her. . . I think this is probably bound to have an impact on her endorsements, but as far as her being the president of the WTA, we're not going to do anything about that. She's doing a good job as president, and I'm sure she'll remain until the elections at the U.S. Open in September."
Spokesmen for Avon Products and Toyota, the two largest sponsors of women's tennis, said yesterday that they did not anticipate any adverse impact on the tour or their sponsorship of women's tournaments.
"I feel this will be a storm in a teapot," said Tinling, recalling that women's tennis has prospered despite emotional controversies before, including King's disclosure in 1972 that she had undergone an abortion and the emergence of transsexual Renee Richards in 1976.
King said, "I don't think this will affect the tour at all. Tennis is much bigger than I am. Sports are much bigger than one individual. Fortunately, we have a very good, viable system going on right now, and I know that it will continue to perpetuate itself. I just hope that I haven't set it back in any way."
King said she had contacted 15-year-old Andrea Jaeger, who is scheduled to be her partner in the Tokyo tournament starting Friday, and said, "I don't expect you to play with me now because you're going to get harassed and I don't want to put anybody through that," but that Jaeger and her parents were eager for her to play.
"Andrea is all psyched up to win the tournament now. They've been terrific. All the players have been. I can't ask for anything more," King said.
King said she did not know whether NBC-TV would void a recently signed contract for her to be a commentator on the network's coverage of the Wimbledon championships this summer, but that NBC Sports Executive Producer Don Ohlmeyer "has really stood by me from the beginning." An NBC spokesman said yesterday that it was "highly unlikely that this incident would change our relationship with Billie Jean King."
"I think Ohlmeyer would keep me, but I have a feeling the sponsors are going to be very heavy on him and he's not going to have that much to say about it," King said. "I had been looking forward to working for NBC, but if I don't do television, I'll play in the tournament. I'm going to get on with my life and my career. You've got to go forward.
"I did what I thought was right for myself by making my announcement. I feel better getting it out in the open. You have to live with yourself first, and if you lose yourself you've lost everything," said King, winner of 12 Grand Slam singles titles, a record 20 career Wimbledon titles and just about every other prize worth winning in tennis.
"I just hope that eventually, after all is said and done, years down the road, maybe I can say some good came from all this pain. . . The only good I've seen so far is that I've gotten unbelievable support. I know who my friends are, I know who really loves me, and I think that's nice to learn."