The thin line between better and best

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Billie Jean King has been a champion of Title IX. You also can expect to see her among our Top 40 female athletes.

Editor's note: To mark the 40th anniversary of Title IX, espnW is celebrating the top 40 female athletes of the past 40 years, as chosen by an industrywide panel of journalists and women's sports experts. Every Monday through Friday from now through June 22, we'll count down the list, honoring a different athlete each day on "SportsCenter" and at espnW's Title IX section. Here, ESPN columnist Johnette Howard, one of 24 voters on our panel, reflects on some of the difficult choices in selecting the best of the best.

Billie Jean King never likes to lose at anything, even now as she roars along at age 68 atop two knees she recently had replaced. So it's safe to say she'll want to see exactly where she ranks on espnW's list of the 40 greatest female athletes of the past 40 years.

The simple fact this list even exists means that the conversation about women's sports -- one that King has helped push forward for decades -- is coming full circle. King set out to change the world, and by championing Title IX, she opened doors for everyone who came after her.

So many of the athletes in the Top 40 were children of Title IX, even those who grew up far from U.S. shores, facing different cultural and political obstacles. Title IX isn't just an American phenomenon; it has raised the bar for women the world over.

Which is why voting was so hard. Far and away the most difficult part was reconciling athletic achievement with cultural impact. It struck me in looking over my own ballot that I've seen or covered all 40 athletes in their day -- yet I still felt compelled to rank Billie Jean No. 1, even though the criterion was athletic accomplishment, pure and simple.

I was sure I had overranked her. I guess we'll find out whether I did. But I just couldn't get past the fact that King sparked social change, the same way Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson did. Without her unflagging advocacy, it's hard to see how the women's sports boom would have happened.

Of course, if you asked me whether King at her best would have beaten Martina Navratilova or Serena Williams at their best, I'd have to confess, probably not (and then duck if Billie Jean were in earshot). But part of the beauty of a list like this is the debate surrounding it. After all, everyone has his or her own touchstones and memories.

And the voting process, at least for me, was all about memories. Every name triggered images that came flooding back. Emotions rose up. I wrestled long and hard with how high to rank Mia Hamm, because of both her individual brilliance and her role as the biggest star on the most important women's team America has ever fielded. Who can forget the day Hamm and the rest of the U.S. women's soccer team played their 1999 World Cup final against China? More than 100,000 people packed the Rose Bowl, at the time the largest crowd to see a women's sports event.

Then again, if athletic achievement really is the only measure, it's easier to make a case for Jackie Joyner-Kersee as No. 1. Is there a better all-around athlete than a gold-medal-winning heptathlete? The woman won six Olympic medals across four different Games and still holds a world record -- pretty impressive.

But if extended runs of dominance are the benchmark, how do you top someone like Navratilova or Annika Sorenstam? No, wait … how do you not put Steffi Graf ahead of both Navratilova and Chris Evert, since Graf won more majors than both of them and gave Martina fits?

Who's better or best is often just a gut feeling, a personal eyeball test. Otherwise, how could you possibly compare a golfer to a skier to a swimmer to a diver? And then you have to consider different eras. When it comes to women's basketball, l lean hard toward contemporary players. But I went the other way with gymnasts; I still think Nadia Comaneci was the best ever.

Also, how do you weigh the novelty of an athlete's accomplishments? Quite a lot, if you're me. Julie Krone was the first female jockey to win a Triple Crown race. She has to be in the Top 40, right? Lindsey Vonn, the World Cup and Olympic ski champion, is the best American ever in a sport in which American women have rarely excelled. That has to count for something.

From the fields to the hardwood, from the pool to the slopes, there were too many amazing athletes to fit into only 40 slots -- athletes who've inspired millions of girls and women around the world with the message that it's possible, even life-changing, to sweat and strain in pursuit of their dreams.

See what you started, Billie Jean?

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