We welcome a guest post today from Susan Ware, author of Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports. In the book, Ware links the stories of Billie Jean King and Title IX, explaining why women’s sports took off in the 1970s and how giving women a sporting chance has permanently changed American life on and off the playing field.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of one of the most important matches in King’s career and in sports history: the match against Bobby Riggs, billed as “The Battle of the Sexes.” Ware recently appeared on MSNBC’s UP with Steve Kornacki to talk about the anniversary and the historical significance of the legendary match. In the following guest post, she addresses the anniversary and recent allegations that Riggs threw the match.
I watched Billie Jean King trounce Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3 on September 20, 1973 while I was a history graduate student at Harvard. I certainly never expected forty years later—and after publishing a book on King, Title IX, and the revolution in women’s sports—to be revisiting the question of whether King won the match. But a recent story posted on the ESPN website alleges that Bobby Riggs tanked the match in order to pay off his gambling debts to the mafia. All of a sudden, one of the greatest sporting victories for women of all times is in danger of being cheapened, diminished. My reaction: give up, guys. She won in 1973, and she still wins in 2013.
The revelations are extremely suspect. Supposedly a young golf pro in Florida overheard (at midnight, no less) a bunch of mafiosa types hatching a plan for Riggs to challenge Margaret Court, the top women’s player in the world, beat her, then lure Billie Jean King into a revenge match—and lose. Why? The fix would be in, and everyone would make a killing with their bets.
The credibility of this story is dubious at best. Why offer this narrative now, forty years after the event, when so many of the principles are no longer alive? It reminds me of the folks who conveniently find “evidence” relating to the disappearance of Amelia Earhart around the time of major anniversaries of her last flight. The ESPN article offers no hard facts or independent confirmation, just an assortment of random circumstantial evidence and quotes from old-timers who get a chance—again—to voice their doubts that even a superbly trained athlete at the height of her career could beat an aging male tennis player.
And yet this story got a lot of media play. I don’t think this is a coincidence. The questions that were being fought on the tennis court that night in Houston—the future of women’s professional tennis but more broadly women’s changing roles in American society—are far from settled today. Title IX has led to transformative change for women athletes, but the law is under constant attack and female athletes are still are far from the goal of gender equity. There still is something suspicious or deviant about masterful displays of female athletic prowess. Many people continue to reflexively believe that men are stronger and faster than women, blind to the evidence that many skilled female athletes can easily and consistently outperform many (if not most) men. In other words, they are prepared to give credence to dubious assertions about Riggs throwing the match because it confirms their underlying belief that men always have an advantage over women when it comes to sports. This lingering skepticism suggests that all the breakthroughs and victories women have won in the field of sports (and society) over the past forty years may be on more shaky ground than we realize.
But Billie Jean King did win, and she won convincingly. Check out of the footage of the match on the American Masters documentary that recently aired on PBS timed to coincide with its fortieth anniversary. (Full disclosure: the producers at New Black Films read my book but I did not play a role in the documentary.) Riggs clearly overestimated himself and underestimated his opponent, a fatal move in a game like tennis which relies as much on psychology as skill: unlike Margaret Court, Billie Jean King did not wilt under pressure but rose to the occasion and took control of the match. The footage shows not a player who was intentionally tanking a match, but one who was consistently and masterfully outplayed by a superior opponent, which Riggs admitted at the time and maintained right up until his death in 1995. The unsupported ESPN allegations have no place in sporting history.
With the hoopla surrounding the fortieth anniversary of the Battle of the Sexes, Billie Jean King is having yet another moment in the limelight she loves so much. She turns seventy in November and shows no signs of slowing down. I saw that zest for life on display in early September at the U.S. Open, where she basked in the adulation of the crowd while watching the women’s semi-finals. She was truly in her element. The older folks in attendance (all the people, she once joked, who at her funeral would be talking about where they were when she beat Bobby Riggs instead of memorializing her) didn’t need to be told who the Billie Jean King USTA complex was named for. But I wondered if the younger kids watching the matches realized how much she had done for professional tennis or even knew who she was. Telling Billie Jean King’s story and establishing her historical significance, not just as an aging former tennis player but as a major actor in the twentieth century struggle for feminism and equal rights, was a prime motivation for writing Game, Set, Match.
And yet it was an odd moment for me, her biographer and chronicler, sitting far up in the nosebleed seats, looking down courtside at the figure who had been the focus of my research for the several years it took to write the book—very much alive and very much still fighting the good fight for women in sports. I like to think she heard my clapping and shouts of admiration from high up in the stands.
Susan Ware specializes in twentieth-century U.S. history, women’s history, and biography and is the author of Game, Set, Match: Billie Jean King and the Revolution in Women’s Sports (University of North Carolina Press, 2011). She also serves as general editor of American National Biography.