King V. Riggs 'Battle Of The Sexes' Led to Significant Changes In Sports And Society

It was the "libber" vs. the "lobber."

To many, the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis match in September 1973 was a publicity stunt. In retrospect, it turned out to be one of the most important events promoting civil rights and women's equality. The event was to women's sports and society's view of women as Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier in baseball was to race relations and civil rights.

  Later this month, the highly-anticipated movie "Battle of the Sexes" will be released, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell.

     A world-class huckster, showman, and self-promoter, Bobby Riggs was a world-class tennis player during the late 1930s and 1940s, winning Wimbledon and three U.S. Open titles. During the early 1970s, he was a loud critic of women’s sports, particularly tennis. Riggs was the proud poster boy for the male chauvinist pig who espoused the Archie Bunker mentality that a woman's place was in the bedroom or the kitchen certainly not on an athletic field. "If a woman wants to get in the headlines," Riggs said, "she should have quintuplets." In May 1973, Riggs challenged and humiliated Margaret Court, who was then the number-one ranked female tennis player in the world, 6-2, 6-1.

     But Riggs wasn't finished. The one woman he really wanted to beat was Billie Jean King, and she accepted his challenge. Riggs reportedly hyped his match with King by practicing in a "men's liberation" T-shirt and declaring, "If I am to be a chauvinist pig, I want to be the number one pig."

     The "Battle of the Sexes" took place at the Houston Astrodome in front of 30,000 people and a huge nationwide television audience of over 50 million. It was as big an event as the OJ Simpson trial, the M*A*S*H final episode, or an Evel Knievel jump, with the two participants playing for $100,000, winner-take-all. The match captured the country's attention and had the ambience of a heavyweight title-boxing match. Four college football players dressed as toga-clad slaves carried King onto the Astrodome court on a feathered Egyptian litter. Riggs made his entrance on a Chinese rickshaw hauled by "Bobby's Bosom Buddies," a bunch of sexy young women in tight outfits.

     The 29-year-old King gave Riggs the equivalent of a sports wedgie, whipping the 55-year old former champion 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. Even though King won 39 Grand Slam tennis titles during her career, including six Wimbledon and four U.S.Open titles, this was easily the biggest win of her life.

     King's victory was a clarion call to young girls who wanted to participate in sports. Before the 1970s, women's sports were a tiny blip on the radar screen. Little League and youth sports were for boys only, and girls who dared to be athletic and play sports were tomboys or outcasts.

     After King's win, it became socially acceptable and cool for girls to go to tennis courts and work on their ground strokes instead of their tans, enroll in swimming or gymnastics classes, earn black belts in karate, and swish a 15-foot jump shot. It literally became "I am woman, hear me roar" in soccer cleats.

     The past 44 years have seen a boom in women's sports. Soccer moms and dads now serve as chauffeurs to just as many girls' games as boys.

According to an article by Beth Brooke-Marciniak and Donna de Varona on August 25, 2016 in the World Economic Forum website, "Since 1972, thanks to increased funding and institutional opportunities, there has been a 545% increase in the percentage of women playing college sports and a 990% increase in the percentage of women playing high school sport."

    Gender equity through Title IX legislation has led to increased spending and visibility for women's college athletics. Women's pro tennis is as popular, if not more, than men's tennis. The women's NCAA Basketball Final Four and many other games are televised. American women's teams have won gold medals in Olympic Basketball and Soccer as well as World Cup soccer titles. With the expansion of Cable TV sports networks, women's sports events are televised pretty much every day year-round.

     King's victory also had a profound effect on how men perceived women. Boys growing up in the '70s and '80s were the first generation to perceive women not just as June Cleaver homemaker types, but as strong, independent, capable people who didn't have to rely on men to provide for their needs. A great deal of that respect evolved from boys competing against girls at the youth sports level and then in high school practicing on adjacent fields. Young men not only started accepting women as athletes, but also as college students, doctors, lawyers, and (gulp ) bosses.

     Today, most young female athletes probably haven't heard of Billie Jean King. They definitely wouldn't have heard of Bobby Riggs. But the two of them helped change society's view of women forever. This new movie will help to educate a new generation as to the importance of this event and how it changed society.   

   After Riggs died from cancer in 1995, King wrote in Sports Illustrated, "Bobby Riggs was my friend. I know some people may be surprised to hear that, but he was. The Battle of the Sexes irrevocably bonded us."

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Larry Atkins teaches Journalism at Temple University and Journalism and Sports Ethics at Arcadia University. He is author of the book "Skewed: A Critical Thinker's Guide to Media Bias." This is an updated and revised version of an Op-Ed commentary that he wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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