This week’s national angst over national anthem protocol at NFL games certainly isn’t the first intersection of sports, society and politics.
In fact, several seminal events — from Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier to the black-power salutes at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics to the geopolitical context of the “Miracle on Ice” Cold War-era hockey game between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. — have reflected stakes well beyond the final score.
Forty-four years ago, another such event gripped the nation: the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs tennis match, framed by Riggs as a test of whether women could compete with men.
It was billed as the “Battle of the Sexes,” and a compelling film with the same name made its debut nationally on Friday, featuring Emma Stone and Steve Carell uncannily channeling King and Riggs.
One critic with unique insight — Billie Jean King herself — agrees. “I was amazed how close they could come to reality like that,” King said in an interview. “They got the essence of the story, they got the essence of our personalities.”
King’s story is extraordinary — then and since. The 73-year-old icon has been a sports and societal symbol so long that it’s sometimes forgotten — or it’s new to younger generations — just what a trailblazer she was, and how momentous a moment the match was for the women’s movement in America.
“I got lucky — I was pretty clear on how I thought people would respond,” King said. “I also was very clear that this was about social change — it wasn’t just a tennis match — and that we were probably going to have a huge audience, because I knew people were very emotional about it.”
Huge, indeed. The match was witnessed by an astounding Astrodome crowd of more than 30,000 and an estimated 50 million Americans watching on television at home. The attendance and ratings reflected the societal dynamics at play, as well as the extraordinary orchestration by Riggs, a self-styled “hustler” who embraced the persona of a male chauvinist pig, hamming it up in news conferences and in practice sessions open to a mesmerized media.
“The exposure was phenomenal,” King said. “We didn’t have as many outlets of information. We depended on traditional media like print, and you told our story. … It was easier to focus.”
And the focus was fueled by emotion.
“The excitement, the angst,” King said, recalling the spontaneous response to her win. “Some great things happened, but one guy threw his television set through the window of his home he was so pissed that I won,” King said, laughing. “It was a very emotional moment. And after the match, the colleges, especially the women’s colleges like Smith, went out in the street and just marched up and down and just had a hoot and a holler.”
King had resisted Riggs’ repeated offers for a match but relented after he beat then-top-ranked Margaret Court.
“I would never play Bobby. He followed me around for two years and I said, ‘no, no, no.’ We were just starting the women’s tour, and finally Margaret played him,” said King, who didn’t profess to be impressed with beating an opponent who was 55 years old, compared with King’s 29.
“It wasn’t an athletic feat to beat somebody that old — I don’t care if they are a man or a woman — so it wasn’t a big deal from an athletic point of view,” she said. “But from a social point of view, Title IX had just been passed a year before, on June 23, 1972, and I was fighting for that, to keep it strong, because a lot of people were already starting to try to weaken it with lawsuits. I also wanted to change the hearts and minds of people to match that. It was also the height of the women’s movement — everything was very tumultuous.”
It still is, as evidenced by sexism seen in several current controversies spanning nearly every societal sector. So to this day, King remains a passionate advocate for getting girls into the game(s). “We know if we can get a girl in sports that she has a better chance of getting a better job, being a leader, just being stronger in life; her self-esteem is higher, her health is better — it runs through a lot.
“A lot of people don’t think about sports the way they think of other things and they need to, because a lot of times we are on the outside looking in, and we don’t realize how we can help change things and make things better.”
King, who has changed things and made them better for so many, credits her father for her success.
“My dad was very instrumental in allowing me to be who I am,” King said, “because he believed in me.”
“Fathers with daughters,” she added, “are our best advocates by far.”
Many of those dads were undoubtedly inspired by King and other great athletes that King’s advocacy helped make possible.
“I hear so many stories,” King said, recalling how people remember the match. “The women became empowered from it with more self-confidence. And the men are more reflective, and they come up to me and now they have a daughter like you do, and they just get tears in their eyes.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.