By Laura Pappano
Exactly 40 years ago, over 30,000 spectators filled the Houston Astrodome and 50 million more tuned in on TV to watch “The Battle of the Sexes.”
Billie Jean King, a 29-year-old who would be #1 in the world for five years (winning six Wimbledon Championships and four U.S. Open titles), took on Bobby Riggs, a 55-year-old former tennis champion (he won Wimbledon in 1939), dispatching him in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3.
The question swirling around this anniversary: Was the match real?
Last month an ESPN report featured Hal Shaw, a 79-year-old former assistant pro at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla. who came forward for the first time to share a big secret. Shaw says that one night while he was working – a few months after the match – he overheard mobsters talking. His claim? Bobby Riggs owed $100,000 – so he threw the match against King to pay it off.
One little focused-on fact: The match was a $100,000 winner-take-all contest. If Riggs had won, he would have walked away with the cash. (OK – Uncle Sam would take a cut, but still….)
Yet, the revived debate about what happened (we may never really know) is more interesting for what it says about gender equity and power.
In 1973, the match drew attention because of the context. Bobby Riggs had made a male chauvinist pig of himself to promote the event. “Women,” he insisted at the time, “belong in the kitchen and the bedroom and not on the tennis court.”
And you could replace “tennis court” with “boardroom,” “executive suite,” “corner office,” “high elected office,” “Supreme Court” – any number of positions of power. The contest was a big deal because women themselves weren’t so sure that Riggs wasn’t right.
When Billie Jean King won it awakened possibilities. (In 1975 when Seventeen magazine polled readers Billie Jean King was the most admired women in the world.) The win also surprised people – not that a tennis player in her prime beat a retired champion who may not have been in his best shape – but that a woman beat a man. No matter the contest (or position of power) men were always supposed to win. This disrupted the order.
Claiming that the match wasn’t “real” today sounds desperate.
Sure, it has sparked debate, but the lasting legacy of the anniversary may be that the meaning attached to that moment cannot be overturned. Billie Jean King changed people’s minds — and they are not about to be changed back.