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Remembering the Battle of the Sexes

Posted: Wed September 16, 1998

As we close out the century, there is one extraordinary game that stands alone at the top—even though it'll probably be unfathomable for history to understand. But who could argue? The single most unusual sports event of the 1900s happened when Billie Jean met Bobby in The Battle of the Sexes, exactly 25 years ago this Sunday.

The significance of that event was often masked by the silliness, by Bobby Riggs's outlandish behavior that displayed such madness it was hard to see the method to it—which was to make money. But in the end, that foolish showdown at the Astrodome was something that really mattered.

Oh, Title IX had already become law—would, in time, guarantee women athletic equality—and even in a few sports, like tennis, the women's movement was moving at full speed. Still, by playing Bobby and thrashing him, Billie Jean King didn't just raise consciousness, which was the feminist mantra then. No, she absolutely changed consciousness.

Billy Jean King King's victory changed the public's view of female athletes.   (Jerry Cooke)  Bobby Riggs Despite his bluster, Riggs and King had much in common.   (Jerry Cooke)

She did it not only by winning, but by surviving under pressure—which was supposed to be the manly attribute—and by doing it with as much humor as earnestness. But then, sometimes we really do move forward by dancing instead of marching. We can—as Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa have shown us—advance with a grin instead of a grimace. That was how The Battle of the Sexes contributed to changing the outlook of society in ways that went far beyond the fun and the games.

When Billie Jean and I were together at Wimbledon this summer, we talked—and laughed—a lot, remembering that match, that time. This may surprise you, but she remains convinced that while her victory did so much to encourage girls, it probably had even more of an effect upon boys. She may have given girls pride, but she made boys simply doubt—doubt all those stereotypes that they'd heard about the, uh, weaker sex.

Riggs played to the old pigs, but King won the hearts of the putative pigs. Billie Jean is quick to point out that recent female advancement in athletics is very much the case because of men—fathers, especially—who grew up to demand for their daughters what they had been given as sons. And more than a little of that attitude was born simply because of the comportment and the victory that Billie Jean King showed the world on that September night in Houston a quarter of a century ago.

But then, here was the twist. Except for those who knew Billie Jean well, the secret was that she was really quite a bit like Bobby. It was just that she hustled for somewhat more substantial causes. But she was never buffaloed by his blustery act, precisely because they were such kindred spirits. After all, just as she was the chubby and myopic little girl the tennis establishment wanted nothing to do with, Bobby had been the fresh, scrawny scamp of a preacher's kid who had had to fight just as hard for his respect in that snooty environment. They both knew the game and they both knew the score.

In fact, despite what most people thought, Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King liked each other and stayed, warmly, in touch through the rest of his life. When he began to decline with cancer in l995, Billie Jean would call him to chat. She told me that the last time she spoke to him—when he knew it would be the last time—Bobby said: "We really did it, didn't we, Billie? We really made a difference."

Billie Jean assured him that, yes, they had changed things, together, the two of them, on that bizarre occasion 25 years ago.

These commentaries, which appear each Wednesday on National Public Radio's Morning Edition, are posted weekly by CNN/SI.

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