It’s been 40 years since I sat, rapt, in front of the TV like so many other young girls and women in America as lesbian tennis player Billie Jean King trounced former number one male player Bobby Riggs in the "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match.
50 million viewers saw what is still the most-watched tennis match of all time and 30,000 packed the Houston Astrodome to see it. King won 6-4,6-3,-6-3 and took the $100,000 prize.
It was a moment in feminist history that resonated, no matter how young you were. My father played tennis and was impressed as we watched. Riggs, he told me, had been "one of the best." He also told me male players had much more physical strength than female players, which, he said, made King’s win all the greater.
"It doesn’t matter how much older he is," my father said, since Riggs was 55 and King was 29. "You never lose that strength, you’ve always got shots they don’t even teach women to play. Even if she’s got more speed, he’s stronger. Believe me, he’s stronger."
Those biological facts, my father said, meant King’s win was impressive.
I remember the match vividly. And while my father was considerably younger than Riggs and not that much older than King at the time, what I heard from him–someone who played the game as a ranked amateur–was this: Billie Jean King had beaten a man who was stronger than she was. She had proven that women are equal to men on the tennis court and, by extension, in life.
I was an avid athlete throughout my childhood and beyond. While I never mastered tennis–my left-handed serve always ended up someplace other than at my opponent–I was very good at other sports. But it was the women of tennis–the only women athletes we girls got to see on TV, then, outside of the Olympics–who showed us strength and mettle and what it was to win.
So when news reports recently surfaced that the match may have been thrown by Riggs, I was outraged–for King, for me, for girls/women everywhere. How dare someone steal this match from all of us?
According to an ESPN report on "Outside the Lines," Riggs, a gambler, threw the match to erase a $100,000 gambling debt owed to mobsters.
Why are we hearing about this 40 years after the fact, when Riggs has been dead since 1995?
A country club worker, Hal Shaw, 79, says he overheard a conversation about it years ago. His reason for not coming forward at the time is he was "petrified." He didn’t explain why he’s coming forward now.
King said of the story, “I was on the court with Bobby and I know he was not tanking the match. I could see in his eyes and body language he wanted to win. It was 40 years ago and I won the match and I am 100 percent sure Bobby wanted to win as badly as I did. Those who bet against me lost money but the result is the same today as it was 40 years ago."
What’s more, Riggs and King were friends, maintaining a connection till his death from prostate cancer. According to King in a documentary in 2006, the two continued to speak right up until the night before he died.
Why did ESPN report this story? Shaw’s tale of having overheard two mobsters several months prior to the match would be laughed out of a courtroom.
The language of the telling has also been extremely sexist. Riggs, for example, is referred to as a "former no. 1 in the world," "world champion" and "Wimbledon winner." Yet King was all those things as well–and more. The news media has failed to note this, however.
Everything about this sensationalistic story has been sexist, from the fact it was even told to the language used–language that obliterates King’s achievements while lauding Riggs’.
King was–and remains–one of the top female tennis players of all time. A former number one in the world professional tennis player, King won 39 Grand Slam titles, including 12 singles, 16 women’s doubles, and 11 mixed doubles titles. She won the singles title at the inaugural WTA Tour Championships.
Her record ended up far outstripping that of Riggs.
King often represented the U.S. in the Federation Cup and the Wightman Cup. She was a member of the victorious U.S. team in seven Federation Cups and nine Wightman Cups. For three years, King was the U.S.’ captain in the Federation Cup.
King founded the Women’s Tennis Association, World Team Tennis and the Women’s Sports Foundation. She was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1987 and was given the Federation Cup Award of Excellence in 2010.
The year before the match, King was the joint winner, with John Wooden, of the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year Award and was one of Time magazine’s Persons of the Year in 1975. She also received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
King was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and in 2006, the USTA National Tennis Center in New York City was renamed the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
She is one of the most accomplished female tennis players of all time.
In presenting this story of a rigged match which no one can corroborate, ESPN has planted a damning seed of doubt about King, about her credibility as a player.
The 1973 match was always first and foremost a publicity stunt. Riggs, who called himself a male chauvinist, had challenged the top female tennis players to the so-called "Battle of the Sexes."
He actually played Margaret Court, 30, then the top female player in the world, on Mother’s Day 1973. But Riggs threw off her game with his drop shots and lobs and she wasn’t able to recover her footing. The game was referred to as the Mother’s Day Massacre and garnered Riggs a Time magazine cover for having trounced Court.
King, who had previously declined to play Riggs, decided to do so to avenge Court. The September match five months after Riggs’ match with Court wasn’t a massacre, but he did lose and the very fact that it went three sets seems to argue against his throwing the match. He’d won against Court in two.
A question no male sportswriter or commentator covering this story has asked is: Why wouldn’t Riggs throw thefirst match, with Court, the top player, rather than the one with King? And how could he count on her not losing like Court had?
In the end the match meant little in the panoply of King’s career, but as reporters asked Venus Williams, who had been mentored by King, and other female players about the story, it was clear from the responses that no one wants to talk about it and everyone feels insulted by it.
Much has changed in sports in 40 years. Women are on somewhat more equal footing with men and many consider some women’s sports, notably tennis and basketball, more interesting that that of men.
But for all the changes over four decades, women still get tiny purses in comparison with men in every sport and also don’t get the TV air time men’s sports get. Sexism in and around sports is still rampant. The fact that this "story" has even been reported with such seriousness proves that.
Riggs can’t come back from the dead to answer questions about this story. But the main question raised by it–can women ever be judged on merit rather than innuendo?–has been answered.
No–not as long as men drive sports and women are regardless of their athletic achievements, still considered second class to their male counterparts.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, as well as the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Baltimore Sun, Philadelphia Inquirer, The Nation, and Village Voice, among others. She writes a weekly TV column for the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate, SheWired and Huffington Post. Her most recent book is From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth, winner of the Moonbeam Award for Cultural/Historical Fiction 2012. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012.