Buccaneers assistant defensive line coach Lori Locust was just nine years old when she watched 'The Battle of the Sexes' match between tennis star Billie Jean King and the formerly top-ranked men's player Bobby Riggs, who had been the one to issue the challenge. King's victory in front of 90 million viewers sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world at the time and forever changed the trajectory of women in it.
Some four decades later, King continues her advocacy work for gender equality in the sports world and beyond. It's what brought the original game changer to Atlanta, Georgia, where she would interview Locust and Bucs assistant strength and conditioning coach Maral Javadifar for Epix's NFL: The Grind series. As two of only a handful of female coaches in the NFL, and the only pair of female coworkers on an NFL coaching staff, Locust and Javadifar are game changers in their own right. The three convened this past Saturday evening in downtown Atlanta ahead of the Week 12 Buccaneers game against the Falcons.
Sporting a 'No Risk-It, No Biscuit' t-shirt paying homage to Bucs Head Coach Bruce Arians' infamous slogan, King – along with NFL Senior Director of Football Development Sam Rapoport – spent time with the two coaches as well as the big guy, BA, for the segment, in which King didn't shy away from asking the hard-hitting questions.
Locust said she was able to share with King that she watched the match as a young girl.
"She even asked me, what did that mean to you as a nine-year-old girl?" Locust said. "Knowing all the change that she effected by just that match, playing in it and winning, it was such a catalyst. Things like that start so many other things in motion. It's just you don't realize what kind of history you're actually watching until years later.
"She's still such a champion for all women in sports. She wants all opportunities to be open, she wants every woman to feel empowered."
Javadifar was, admittedly, a little nervous when it came time for her to sit down with King. Javadifar wasn't born when King played in that fateful match but as a former collegiate athlete and now member of an NFL coaching staff, she's proof of the progress King initiated all those years ago.
"I was kind of in awe," Javadifar said. "That's Billie Jean King. And I don't get starstruck or things like that - but I was totally starstruck when I saw her. I was like man, she's done so much for women and young girls from all ages and walks of life. She's made our lives that much easier."
King hasn't just made the lives of women who play and coach sports better, either. She's paved the way for inclusion in all facets of the sports industry and that carries over to people like yours truly. The next day, I found myself on the sidelines of the field inside Mercedes-Benz Stadium before the game along with Bucs team reporter Casey Phillips, video producer Abby Durner and social media coordinator Jill Beckman, in a huddle of our own with King herself at the center of it. She asked each of our names and job titles, and as we each rattled off the information, I was struck very abruptly with just how far the industry has truly come. We were a one-stop content shop for an NFL franchise made up entirely of women. Qualified women. And we were talking to perhaps the single-most prominent figure who made it possible. King came out swinging in our conversation and didn't mince words when giving advice, either. She wanted to know how we felt about the opportunities we'd been given and the responsibilities that were entrusted to us. She told us to champion each other and find others – men and women – who will do the same. She told us to always go after what we want.
"I feel like she keeps pushing women, too," Beckman, who was still reeling from the excitement of meeting King days later, said. "Even though the Bucs have great diversity and it's something that we're known for, she's still asking the tough questions to us. She's not just saying you guys have come a long way. She's saying, 'No, what are you doing to keep pushing this thing forward?' It doesn't end here."
"I'll be forever grateful for what she's done in sports, for women in sports and her legacy will continue for generations," Javadifar said. "She's a bad ass."
Keep an eye out for the feature on NFL: The Grind, hosted by Rich Eisen, which airs on Epix Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET. And in the meantime, if you'll afford the author one more departure from journalistic objectivity – thank you again, Ms. King. We are able to coach and report and shoot and tweet and write not only because you swung that racket back then, but because you are still swinging now.