We often talk about athletes "transcending" their particular sport and having a wider cultural impact, but the truth is that becoming rich and famous for your physical feats doesn't have an effect on people that goes beyond entertainment. LeBron James may bring in $60 million a year and have 10 million followers on Twitter, but I doubt that a few decades from now people are going to talk about how much he changed America. Tom Brady may have won three Super Bowls and married a supermodel, but no one looks to him for leadership on critical social issues confronting our nation.
This is a good time to consider one of the few exceptions, an athlete whose cultural impact was probably second only to that of Jackie Robinson. Forty years ago this month, Billie Jean King participated in a sporting event like nothing before or since. It was an absurd spectacle, and it could have been disastrous for the cause she championed. When King left the Houston Astrodome after roundly defeating Bobby Riggs in the tennis match known as the "Battle of the Sexes," it was the high point of her fame, but only one skirmish in an extraordinary crusade she waged over decades.
We'll get back to the Battle of Sexes in a moment, but just two months prior, King had achieved another victory all the more remarkable when you consider the atmosphere in which it was won. Until 1973, the U.S. Open tennis tournament awarded its female athletes a fraction of the prize money the male athletes got. King (along with others) waged a relentless campaign to bring parity to the prizes, finally succeeding that summer. Just look at the language the Associated Press used in this July 18, 1973 article to describe King:
Women's lib, thanks to Billie Jean King's belligerence and Chris Evert's schoolgirl charm, comes of age in the U.S. Open Tennis Championships this year.
The girls will get equal paychecks with the men in the last of the prestige tournaments, scheduled Aug. 29 – Sept. 9 at the West Side Tennis Club…
This would make the U. S. Open the first tournament of any consequence in which the guys and the gals are given financial parity.
Last year, with a $160,000 purse, the men's champion, Ilie Nastase of Romania, received $25,000 while Mrs. King, the ladies' victor, had to settle for $10,000.
This is the sort of female discrimination that has had the bouncy, outspoken matron from Long Beach, Calif., running a high temperature for years.
Billie Jean, who won her fifth Wimbledon title 10 days ago, has long insisted that women players never got a fair shake from the various tournament promoters and she has led strikes which made her persona non grata with the authorities.
Let's hear it for belligerent, bouncy, outspoken matrons running a high temperature.
By the way, the $10,000 King received for winning the 1972 U.S. Open is $55,874 in today's dollars. That's about what a competitor in this year's Open will get for winning one match, then losing in the second round. The winners will each get $2.6 million. In fact, the four highest-paid women athletes in the world are all tennis players—Maria Sharapova, Serena Williams, Li Na, and Victoria Azarenka. But in 1973, they were being paid a relative pittance, which led Billie Jean King to co-found the Women's Tennis Association (WTA) to organize tournaments and advocate for the interests of players. Forty years later, the WTA still governs the major tournaments and women's rankings.
But back to that Battle of the Sexes. Those who weren't around at the time might have trouble understanding just what an enormous media event it was. Bobby Riggs, an inveterate gambler and hustler, had found that he could get attention with sexist rants about women's athletic inferiority. He challenged Margaret Court, then the top women's player, to a match, and beat her soundly. When King accepted his challenge, the media became fascinated; crowded press conferences and innumerable articles ensued. Riggs (but not King) was put on the cover of Time magazine. The event was held in the Houston Astrodome before a crowd of over 30,000 (to this day, only one tennis match has ever had larger in-person audience), with another 50 million people watching on television.
It was without question a ridiculous made-for-TV spectacle—King entered the arena carried aloft by muscle-bound men, like Cleopatra, while Riggs had a group of young women wearing "Sugar Daddy" t-shirts pull him in a rickshaw—but for King, the stakes were high. It may be an overstatement to say that feminism would have been set back for years had she lost, but you can be sure that millions of husbands and bosses were just waiting to lord it over the women they viewed as their inferiors if the match had turned out the way they expected.
In the end, it wasn't close. Riggs had been a top professional—he won both Wimbledon and the U.S. National Championship, precursor to the U.S. Open—but he was 55 years old by the time of the Battle of the Sexes, and King beat him easily in three straight sets. Immediately, rumors began circulating that Riggs lost the match on purpose. Just last week, ESPN published a story discussing claims that Riggs threw the match in a deal with the Mafia to pay off his gambling debts (the article is centered on a golf pro who says he overheard mobsters discussing the fix). King dismisses the rumors out of hand, but in the end it wouldn't change anything even if Riggs had thrown the match, no more than it matters whether Riggs was putting on his male-chauvinist-pig routine (in later years, the two became good friends; Riggs died in 1995). What mattered was that the world saw a man who had been derisive toward women in general and women athletes in particular get a good and proper thumping by a woman at the top of her game in every sense.
Forty years later, tennis is a different game. Advances in fitness and training, and even more importantly, technological developments in the design and materials used in rackets and strings, have made it much faster and more powerful. The gentle, subtle serve-and-volley game of King's day has been replaced by a game that is infinitely more aggressive, even savage at times.
But it doesn't matter that the men's game is marginally faster than the women's game. The top American male player, John Isner, who stands six foot ten, hits many of his first serves at speeds over 140 miles per hour. Serena Williams gets over 120 miles per hour on her serves—somewhat less, but ordinary mortals couldn't return either one of them. Both the men and women's games feature athletes with inhuman levels of strength, speed, and stamina doing impossible things with a little ball flying back and forth so quickly you can barely follow it with your eye.
The Battle of the Sexes may have brought Billie Jean King to an even higher level of fame than her prior achievements had given her, but she waged a long and difficult fight against entrenched institutions and recalcitrant men who viewed women athletes as a sideshow to the "real" contests among men. King was outed in a palimony suit in 1981, and says that within 24 hours she lost all her endorsements. It took until 2007—yes, 2007—before the French Open and Wimbledon equalized purses for men and women.
King may have been dismissed when she first began to challenge the way women athletes were treated, but today, the U.S. Open is played at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, New York. It will probably be a long time before another athlete makes the kind of difference King has.