Forty years ago next week, Billie Jean King joined the circus in order to be taken seriously.
In front of a packed crowd of 30,000 in the Astrodome and 50 million Americans at home, King destroyed Bobby Riggs, three sets to none, in the so-called “Battle of the Sexes.” In terms of media coverage, it rivaled D-Day.
In 1973, King was 29 and had just won her fifth Wimbledon. Riggs, 55, was a former Grand Slam champion and loud-mouthed hustler looking for a quick buck. It was a perfect storm of chauvinism and feminism, played out with balls that bounced.
Riggs entered the arena in a golden rickshaw, King in a chariot powered by bare-chested hunks. Moments before the match, she handed him a squealing piglet. After all of Riggs’ braggadocio about how an old man could beat the world’s best women, it was King who walked off with the $100,000 winner-take-all purse.
King had turned down Riggs’ first challenge, in May 1973. Instead, top-ranked Margaret Court folded in what was dubbed “‘the Mother’s Day Massacre.” King felt morally obligated to carry the flag for all women. She never stopped.
King will be profiled tonight on PBS’s American Masters—the first sports figure to make the cut in the series’s 27-year history.
Fortunately or unfortunately, the documentary does not include recent allegations, first reported by ESPN, that Riggs threw the match in order to pay gambling debts to the mob. Riggs died in 1995. King insists that he played at full tilt. Regardless, the timing of ESPN’s report is no coincidence.
To me, the issue is not whether Riggs tanked the match. It is that King, an authentic icon of the women’s movement, felt she had to participate in the show biz spectacle in the first place.
Talk about pressure. It many ways, it was a lose-lose for King. If she won, well, all she did was beat an old man. If she lost, it would validate Riggs’ assertion that men, even 55-year-old men, were genetically superior to stronger, younger women.
Four decades ago, you cannot imagine what a big deal this was. The women’s movement had just begun to find its stride. After the Margaret Court debacle, King was its anointed figurehead—a racquet-swinging Gloria Steinem.
King was dangerous. She had led the way for equal prize money for women—an unheard-of concept at the time. Once a pariah to the stuffy U.S. Tennis Association, she became in 2006 the namesake of the USTA National Tennis Center, home of the just-completed U.S. Open.
King has long been one of my idols. I wrote a column about “the Battle of the Sexes” for my college paper in 1973, so I guess I’ve come full circle. I still remember one of the lines: “Bobby Riggs proves the old adage that jocks should be worn and not heard.”
Happy Anniversary, BJK. You’re still undefeated in my book.
Read “Racquet Revolutionary,” Sandy Hingston’s 2011 Philadelphia magazine profile of King.