Keith Strudler: Battle Of The Sexes

Aug 30, 2013

Before I begin in earnest, I’ll give all the parents with young children a chance to cover their kids ears, because I’m about to discuss one of those universal truths we’re all supposed to believe, like Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy, who by the way has been working overtime at my house lately.

Okay, so here’s the ugly truth. That Billy Jean King/Bobby Riggs tennis match in the Astrodome back in 1973, the battle of the sexes that supposedly help launch the women’s sports movement as much as Title IX itself, that seminal life event that launched countless careers in and out of sport, well, it was rigged. Yes, that’s right, Bobby Riggs threw the match.

That’s according to a fairly thorough report by ESPN’s Outside the Lines, which recounted the tale of Florida mobsters forgiving a hundred grand of Riggs’ gambling debt for Bobby to play two matches against top female tennis players. The first, against Margaret Court, he’d win. The second, against the popular young Billy Jean King, he’d tank. Riggs exits the Astrodome debt free, with maybe a little extra left in a bank account with his name on it. This public revelation comes on the event’s 40 year anniversary, as ESPN itself is running a series of stylish documentaries on women and sport. So whether it’s news or something of a network publicity stunt is up to the viewer.

It’s virtually impossible to verify a backroom deal some 40 years ago, especially when it’s a one source story, and the most important people in the story are dead. That includes Riggs himself, who died in 1995. If you talk to someone who actually watched the match, they’ll tell you it seems plausible enough. In fact, in a lot of tennis circles, this revelation is a bit of yesterday’s news. And regardless of match day itself, it’s indisputable that Riggs did not train for this match like he did others, including the Margaret Court contest. Riggs drank and partied his way to a 15 pound weight gain before the first serve. Whether it was a full on tank or a more subtle disinterest, something funny happened on the way to Houston. And tennis is one of the world’s easiest sports to fix, something modern tennis event organizers are well aware of in light of more recent allegations of match fixing by several Russian players on tour.

It should be noted, Billy Jean King herself hasn’t corroborated, demanding the match was played fair and square. She’s in a fairly impossible situation, damned if you do, damned if you don’t. And let’s be fair, her recollection of a match played some 40 years ago may be compromised, just like I can’t remember what I wore at my Bar Mitzvah.

Let’s also concede this. It’s not worth discussing in too much detail whether or not he through the match.  If I were a betting man, and pun intended, I’d buy into ESPN’s story. It’s consistent with Riggs’s character, the sport, and the times. If nothing else, Riggs didn’t look ready to win; he was basically sweating grain alcohol and smelled like cigar smoke, all in stark contrast to the more focused Billy Jean King.

So the bigger question here, is does it really matter? Let’s say it’s true and Riggs was on the take and 1973 wasn’t the year America learned a female tennis player could dominate an older male counterpart. I don’t think anyone suggests that male and female physiology is the same, either then or now. And even if that’s the goal, which is shouldn’t be, beating an over the hill charlatan seems a bad way to accomplish that.

What this Battle of the Sexes was supposed to do was put women’s athleticism on the front page, something that happens surprisingly little 40 years later. It was supposed to show women not only could play sports, but that that they wanted, demanded even to do so. That event in the Astrodome was a performance of what the recently enacted Title IX mandated by law, even if it wasn’t enforced for some decades later.

Yes, this was an easier sell when King one. But really, in retrospect, it just didn’t matter. Either way, it was mission accomplished. And win or lose, it’s undeniable that there’s still a long way to go, not just in the US, but much more so globally, in gaining equal opportunity for women in sports.

And that, unlike the Toothy Fairy and Santa Clause and Bobby Riggs, is a universal truth we can all believe.

Keith Strudler is chair of the communication department at Marist College and director for the Marist College Center for Sports Communication.

The views expressed by WAMC's commentators are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the WAMC and its management.