The Battle of the Sexes, the 1973 exhibition tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs that King won, while emotional and historically significant, was, at face value, a shitty moment in women's history. In simply winning that match, King didn't prove anything except that women have to do dumb things to convince themselves and others that they're the same as men. But a new ESPN report from the series "Outside the Lines" has called this valueless historical moment into question, revealing that it's possible that Riggs threw the match because of his deep involvement in gambling.
The year of the Riggs v. King match, Riggs (who was 55 years old and retired) had played female tennis star Margaret Court and won. He then challenged other female tennis players to a rematch, and King, who was not yet 30, took him up on the offer and won. That's the story has its been memorialized thus far. But now, Hal Shaw, an assistant golf pro at a country club, has revealed that before all of this went down, he heard a group of mobsters at his club discussing how Riggs owed them $100,000 in bets. That's the same amount of money that would go to the winner of the Battle of the Sexes match:
The men, Shaw says, used an array of nicknames for Riggs — "Riggsy," "BB," "Bobby Bolita." Ragano told the men that "Riggsy" was prepared to "set up two matches … against the two best women players in the world," Shaw says. "He mentioned Margaret Court — and it's easy for me to remember that because one of my aunt's names was Margaret so that, you know, wasn't hard to remember — and the second lady was Billie Jean King."
Ragano explained that Riggs "had the first match already in the works … and the second match he knew would follow because of Billie Jean King's popularity and everything that it would be kind of a slam dunk to get her to play him bragging about beating Margaret Court," Shaw says Ragano told the men. Shaw also says he heard Ragano mention an unidentified mob man in Chicago who would help engineer the proposed fix.
ESPN dove deep into these claims, and came up with very little evidence that can conclusively prove that either scenario is the case. Some refute that Riggs could have owed so much money, while others claim that it's very possible, given that he was such an erratic dude. One side says that Riggs hadn't been a world number one since the late 1940s and so of course he won. The other says that you can clearly tell from the footage of the match that he just didn't even try.
My understanding about how the Battle of Sexes played out was, for many years, relatively simplistic, an analysis relayed to me at a young age by my father. He told me that Riggs was an out of shape, chauvinistic blowhard who thought he was hot shit. My dad believed that that if King had played a man who was in his prime like she was at the time, there was no way she could have won. My father was the type of man who thought women should play five sets per tennis match (they play three and the men play five), especially given that they now – largely because of King's work – get paid the same amount of prize money during tournaments as men do.
As a teenager learning to love tennis and who thought a woman could do anything a man could do, I didn't know what to do with my father's perspective which so sharply painted this historical moment as a farce. But what I know now is that the fact that the Battle of the Sexes even occurred is total bullshit. At the time, it was hardly taken seriously; it was such a spectacle that commentators described it as a "circus atmosphere." King was carried out onto the court like she was Cleopatra by brawny men, while Riggs was in a chariot pulled by women wearing t-shirts that said "Sugar Daddy". King used that attention to her advantage, to try to get people to pay attention to the causes she cared about. But sportscasters still did things like describe her as "a very attractive young lady" who thought that "sometimes you get the feeling that if she ever let her hair grow down to her shoulders and took her glasses off, you'd have someone vying for a Hollywood screen test."
It's through King's work since that the Battle of the Sexes has gained its cachet as a moment that mattered. So it makes sense that King would want to defend herself from anything that would cast a shadow on something that so much her work was based on; she spoke to ESPN and also released a statement denying that Riggs threw the match:
This story is just ridiculous. 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. People need to accept he had a bad day at the office — just as Margaret Court did when she played Bobby. It was 40 years ago and I won the match and I am 100% 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.
King's story has become hugely important in sport's and women's history. Multiple documentaries have been devoted to her life and her impressive win over Riggs is a large part of that of her legacy. But if we want to think about how far women have come and we want to honor what King's legacy is really about, the Battle of the Sexes should be an afterthought to her story. Her goals have always involved having men and women work together, not battling across from each other. When she was interviewed for the recent women's history series MAKERS, King said that it's not women's singles tennis that she loves the most, but playing with men:
If a child comes to watch a team tennis match, he or she is seeing men and women cooperating, equal contribution by both genders on a level playing field. And that's what I want the world to look like.
King doesn't want the world to look like her match against Bobby Riggs. And whether or not Riggs threw his match against her doesn't matter. What matters is the asterisk that will be left on the story that is her life. The Battle of the Sexes played its part in allowing her to get the work done that she needed to to forward her causes. It's bizarre that for King, this ridiculous event was part of what it took to make people take her seriously and that she has to defend herself over something that ultimately doesn't matter. She can be proud of that win the same way she was about all her others. And more importantly for society at large, she will go down in time as one of the most influential figures in sports, in women's sports, for the LGBT community and for American women's history and history as a whole. She has won 39 Grand Slam tournaments, 12 by herself (11 in mixed doubles, which we know she liked). She founded the Women's Tennis Association. The US Open, which started this week, is held at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
Bobby Riggs won three Grand Slams and has, to his credit, the respect of King. He is best known for losing his match against her. Now he may be best known for doing so because he had a gambling problem.
At the end of the Good Morning America segment that aired this morning about the ESPN report, host Elizabeth Vargas exclaimed, "I want to believe that it wasn't true and that Billie Jean won fair and square!" But there is no fair and square in sexism. King winning didn't matter even when it happened. It's what King did before and after, not during, that does.
Images via AP