I’d have been interested in ESPN’s large feature claiming that Bobby Riggs threw the Battle of the Sexes, his 1973 tennis match against Billie Jean King, if there was more to it than the testimony of a single golf pro, Hal Shaw, who claims to have overheard plans to fix the faceoff. I’ve enjoyed Don Van Natta Jr.’s reporting before, but given that there have been rumors that the match wasn’t on the level since it was played, I’m not sure why ESPN decided to run with the story on not substantially stronger evidence now, particularly on the eve of the American Masters dedicated to King, the first devoted to the career of a professional athlete. As a result, the piece can’t help but feel like it’s born out of a desire to upset an existed narrative–and as an inevitable result, to diminish King’s accomplishment in the match. But even if Shaw’s claims are correct, they don’t do much to challenge the idea that Riggs is a showy slob and King is a dedicated professional.
There are a lot of things about the scenario the article lays out that don’t quite add up, even beyond the fact that it’s essentially a single-source story bolstered by speculation from a researcher on the Mafia who’s only in a position to make general assessments of mob business practices. Given King’s vocal opposition to Riggs’ challenge–she thought he was a blowhard who was best ignored–even before Margaret Court decided to play him, it would have been difficult for Riggs to guarantee that King would get into the ring if Court lost. If Riggs needed to wipe out a gambling debt, winning the match wouldn’t just have given him a chunk of cash with which to dig himself out of a hole: it would have put him in line for even more significant endorsements and guest appearances than the ones he landed after the match, including a job as a celebrity casino greeter. There’s always been money in male chauvinism, but there’s more dignity and money in being a famous winner than a famous loser. Riggs might not have trained because he intended to throw the match, but also, having handily beaten Court, who was the top-ranked tennis player in the world, he might not have felt he needed to be at the top of his form, an idea supported in the piece by Riggs’ best friend and trainer, Lornie Kuhle.
But even if the Battle of the Sexes was fixed, that doesn’t mean feminism’s somehow invalid. As Amanda Marcotte wrote at Slate, “That NBA players can outjump WNBA players doesn’t say squat about whether or not abortion should be legal. 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.”
And if the Battle of the Sexes was meant as a comprehensive contest between men and women, even if Riggs threw the match, that still puts King ahead. As stand-ins for their gender, a fixed match narrative still means that King worked incredibly hard, represented women cannily, and acted like a professional in public. And by contrast, it means 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. As Chrissie Evret told ESPN, “if you know Bobby Riggs, you can’t put anything past him.” That may speak to a certain instinct for survival, but it’s hardly proof that men are actually superior to women. The generally accepted narrative that Riggs lost fair and square as a result of his own high opinion of himself, and later became a good friend of King’s who could be proud of her accomplishment in the Battle of the Sexes is a happier end for him, and for what men are capable of in general.