Friday, September 20, 2013

The Battle of the Sexes

Forty years ago today, Billie Jean King struck a blow for women's liberation by beating notorious male chauvnist Bobby Riggs in a tennis match in Houston's Astrodome.

Or did she?

Just in time for this milestone anniversary came the revival of a longstanding urban myth — that Riggs deliberately lost the match, which was known as the "Battle of the Sexes." The story goes that he threw the match to settle a six–figure gambling debt with the mob.

ESPN wryly suggested that the match should have an asterisk next to it in the sports history books.

"We are always refighting old battles," wrote Gail Collins in the New York Times. "But I honestly did not expect to be spending any time in 2013 arguing about whether Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs."

There really are bigger fish to fry.

Such rumors have been around virtually since the match ended. I must admit that, as a child, I was baffled. Riggs (who died in 1995) was 55 years old and had been retired for many years; King was 29 and had just won both the singles and doubles championships at Wimbledon. In 1973, she was one of the best women's tennis players in the world.

The fact that she won raised no red flags for me. I expected her to win.

Howard Cosell, who was better known for calling professional fights and Monday Night Football, provided the commentary for ABC. That made the event more legitimate in my eyes.

Legitimacy was the issue, it seemed to me then — because it seemed that way to a lot of people. As Gerald Eskenazi, a veteran tennis writer, observes in the Wall Street Journal, "It wasn't until [this day] that I fully understood that a seismic change was under way." That's probably an apt description of my mindset at the time.

King responded to the allegations in the way that people, famous and not famous, tend to address things these days — via Twitter — and she insisted that Riggs wanted to win, that he tried to win.

"I just beat his butt and that's it," she said.

Seems to me that ought to be the final word on it.

But I'm certain that won't be enough for some people.

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