On September 20, 1973, in front of more than 30,000 people at the Houston Astrodome, Billie Jean King soundly defeated Bobby Riggs in what was dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes." The massively hyped event featured King, then 29, and Riggs, then 55, in a sports spectacle that encapsulated the national feminist struggle for equality and respect. Beating Riggs in straight sets, 6-4, 6-3, 6-3, King earned not only a personal victory but a larger one for women across the country.
Or did she?
A new report by Don Van Natta at ESPN coupled with an Outside the Lines television special argues that Riggs actually threw "The Battle of the Sexes." The evidence is centered mostly on the testimony of Hal Shaw, a then-assistant golf pro at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in Tampa, Fla., who says he overheard a group of mobsters discussing Riggs' plan to fix the match. Shaw alleges Riggs had a complex scheme to settle his large gambling debts by promising mob leaders he would lose to King, after first building hype (and odds) by beating the top-ranked woman in tennis at the time, Margaret Court.
"Riggs had assured that the fix would be in," Shaw is quoted saying. "He would beat Margaret Court and then he would go in the tank."
Riggs did beat Court a few months prior to his match with King in straight sets in an event called "The Mother's Day Massacre." However, while odd that Riggs beat the best female player in the world and then was smashed by the second-ranked, it's hardly conclusive evidence. As King herself said in a statement refuting Shaw's claim, "I could see in [Riggs'] eyes and body language he wanted to win. People need to accept he had a bad day at the office — just as Margaret Court did when she played Bobby."
Gail Collins at the New York Times is unimpressed with the story and highly skeptical of the evidence. "I honestly did not expect to be spending any time in 2013 arguing about whether Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs," writes Collins. She quotes Nicholas Pileggi, mob reporter and GoodFellas screenwriter, who dismisses the idea that mobsters would meet in a public locker room as "so outrageous. Those guys do not meet."
Moreover, adding to the evidence against Shaw's account, The Battle of the Sexes had $100,000 prize at stake, which was the amount Riggs owed his debtors.
And even if Riggs did throw the match? The correct response, writes Amanda Marcotte at Slate, is, "So what?" Losing or winning a sports match implies nothing about feminism or women's rights. "That the men at the World Cup are faster than the women at their own World Cup doesn't change the fact that everyday female workers should be paid the same as everyday male workers," says Marcotte. "On the flip side, the greater spryness of female gymnasts also says nothing about whether men should be free to be primary caregivers, secretaries, or nurses. It's just irrelevant."
Moreover, a rigged game would still prove a victory for women, argues Alyssa Rosenberg at ThinkProgress.
As stand-ins for their gender, a fixed match narrative means that King worked incredibly hard, represented women cannily, and acted like a professional. And by contrast, Riggs was undisciplined and arrogant enough to get himself in debt to the wrong people, dishonest enough to refuse to work himself out of that debt honestly, and chose public sloppiness as his means of extricating himself from his gambling dilemma. [ThinkProgress]
It seems that whether or not Riggs threw The Battle of the Sexes, he lost either way.