Thinking of Billie Jean and the (ongoing) battle

Sept. 20, 2013, is the 40th anniversary of tennis’ “Battle of the Sexes.” I was 8 years old then, and recall what a big deal it was to me as a third-grader. Here is a story I wrote for the Kansas City Star in 1999 about the match. BJK’s message in ’99 was the same as in ’73, and it’s just as relevant today.

Sept. 26, 1999

The Legend of Billie Jean

Here’s what you missed on TV on that pre-VCR Thursday night 26 years ago last week.

Sissy Spacek guest-starred as a troubled young pregnant girl on CBS’ “The Waltons.” Buddy Hackett and Ruth Buzzi yucked it up on NBC’s “The Flip Wilson Show.”

Meanwhile, approximately 50 million Americans tuned into ABC at 7 p.m. Central time for what became a landmark event in a watershed decade for female athletes in the United States.

In the “Battle of the Sexes,” the No. 2-ranked woman in tennis, Billie Jean King, beat former Wimbledon men’s champion Bobby Riggs 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. It was played in front of the largest crowd ever to see a tennis match, 30,472 at Houston’s Astrodome, on Sept. 20, 1973.

If you’re of a certain age, it’s one of those unforgettables of the sweet, schlocky ’70s – like your pilgrim costume for the Bicentennial parade or your mood ring.

But do you remember that even though King was 29 and Riggs was 55, odds makers had him as a 5-2 favorite? Riggs himself said he couldn’t conceive of losing, promising to leap off a bridge if he did.

It was all schtick. A longtime tennis hustler, Riggs knew the more outlandish the rhetoric, the better the ticket sales. In his many pre-match monologues he said every crazy thing he could think of, including that the only places a woman belonged were the bedroom and the kitchen.

King kept smiling, though thoroughly irked, and called Riggs “a creep.” Riggs objected, saying he was more like, well, maybe a clown.

Howard Cosell was an announcer at the match. Gloria Steinem had a watch party for Ms. magazine staffers. George Foreman (he showed up everywhere then, too) handed over the winner-take-all $100,000 check.

The money was ancillary to King, who had the past, present and future in mind that night. She had helped found the women’s pro tennis tour in 1970. And she was well aware of the legislation that had been passed in ’72.

“We’d just had Title IX go through, and I knew how important it was,” said King, in Kansas City last week for an AIDS benefit event. “Legislation can be very, very important. But you can have all the legislation in the world; things work best when you change the hearts and minds of people.”

King thought that riding on her racket that night was the image of women, their legitimacy not only as athletes but as fully capable members of society.

In the 1970s, the restrictive views of what American women were supposed to be co-existed in seemingly equal force with the growing demand that they could do anything they wanted. It was a decade in which girls sued to get into Little League, a female sportswriter sued to gain the same postgame access into the New York Yankees’ locker room that her male colleagues had, and women (without suing) were finally allowed to run an Olympic race longer than 800 meters. It was when Helen Reddy went to No. 1 on the charts singing, I am strong. I am invincible. I am Woman.

A headline on The Kansas City Times front page the morning after King’s victory trumpeted: “Male chauvinism stamped out in three sets.”

However, inside the paper, a story on a Carnegie Commission of Higher Education report said more women graduated from high school than men, received better grades in college and applied themselves as diligently to their work – yet did not achieve anything near parity with men in rank and salary. The commission concluded that women were “the largest unused supply of superior intelligence in the United States.”

The King-Riggs match was bannered on sports pages across the country, but you wouldn’t find much other news about women’s or girls athletics in 1973. High school girls sports consisted mainly of some tennis, golf and six-on-six basketball in some places; in others there was nothing.

Many colleges were at least a year away from beginning actual women’s sports programs. There were women’s basketball teams, however, in the late 1960s at schools such as Kansas State, Kansas, Emporia State, Pittsburg State and Central Missouri State.

American females had been playing team sports the entire century, in fact, although there was little formalization and even less official recognition or attention paid to that.

Collegiate women’s team sports had their true birth in the 1970s after Title IX. They were helped by the successes of women in individual sports. Along with King, the top female sports stars of the decade were fellow tennis players Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, golfer Nancy Lopez and gymnast Nadia Comaneci.

“I think tennis definitely was the leader, don’t you?” King said. “But I grew up around team sports. That’s what I really wanted to do. Tennis was the last thing I found.

“Now they have pro women’s basketball, pro softball. Gee, if I’d been born later … ”

But then who would have shut up Riggs?

Riggs had beaten top-ranked Margaret Court 6-2, 6-1 in a May 1973 challenge match. He dubbed it the “Mother’s Day Massacre” and announced he wanted King for his next victim.

Court, an Australian, hadn’t seen the social significance in her match with Riggs; she didn’t prepare for what she considered a lark that paid well.

King took her match much more seriously, and as a vocal feminist she was a far better adversary for Riggs. That year, King had successfully led the fight for women to receive equal prize money at the U.S. Open.

About 3,000 fans in Ramona, Calif., had watched Riggs beat Court. But TV turned the King-Riggs match, called “The Libber vs. the Lobber,” into a national spectacle.

That Sept. 20, baseball legend Willie Mays announced he would retire at season’s end. The new Concorde jet made its first landing in the United States, celebrating the opening of the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. But a small-aircraft crash late that night in Louisiana killed musician Jim Croce, whose “Time in Bottle” was No. 1 two months later.

King didn’t know of anything going on in the world that day; she had sequestered herself and refused 148 “exclusive” interview requests.

Riggs was talking into every microphone he could find.

The pre-match shenanigans were vintage 1970s cheese: Riggs entered the Astrodome floor in a chariot pulled by tight-T-shirted women while King was carried in on an Egyptian-style litter by toga-clad men.

He gave her a giant sucker; she gave him a baby pig.

And then, finally, they played the tennis match, which King made fairly anticlimactic. She ran Riggs all over the court.

She remembers being surprised he had the energy left to jump over the net to congratulate her . Riggs turned into the best of sports when it was over.

“She was much too good,” he told reporters. “I said a lot of things. I was wrong. I admit it. I didn’t choke; she beat me.”

For King, it wasn’t any kind of athletic accomplishment, but simply young beating old. However, she knew how much it meant socially.

As Steinem later said, “She wanted to show that any man was not better than any woman, which had been the attitude up until then.”

Riggs didn’t jump off a bridge; instead, he and King became friends. She phoned two weeks before his death from cancer in 1995, and recalls him saying, “We really did it, didn’t we Billie? We made a difference.”

Virtually every day, someone asks King about the match. Sometimes it’s a woman who says it inspired her to go to grad school. Sometimes it’s a man who says it made him examine his prejudices. King says what she most wanted was to bring the genders closer together, because the actual goal of feminism is “equality for everyone.”

She doesn’t tire of talking about it, knowing whenever the story’s told some girl or young woman is hearing it for the first time.

“They need to know, because the more you know about history, the more you know about yourself,” King said. “They need to understand why they are where they are today. What’s their vision for the next generation?”

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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