Billie Jean King understood that symbolism mattered on that hot September day when she stepped up to match against Bobby Riggs in 1970. She knew that she needed to win. The match she faced had been hyped for months, with Riggs sneering misogynistic comments such as: “I’ll tell you why I’ll win. She’s a woman and they don’t have the emotional stability,” and “Women play about 25 percent as good as men, so they should get about 25 percent of the money men get.” The sexism and frustrated anger surrounding the conflict built to the point that people would refer back to the match as the “Battle of the Sexes.”
Fortunately, Riggs’s venom was kicked back in his face when King defeated him handily in all three sets, proving that women could, in fact, stand toe-to-toe with male athletes. Women in sports were jubilant after King’s win, and her victory is often pointed to as the spark for a sudden increase in women’s athletics. But under the joy and excitement of the victory, an unwelcome dark cloud lurked: as King herself said after the match, “I thought it would set us back 50 years if I didn't win that match [...] It would ruin the women's tour and affect all women's self esteem."
The possibility of losing one match shouldn’t be so terrifying. Indeed, the fact that it is points to a worrying fragility in the esteem for women’s sports. For Billie Jean King, winning the match meant establishing that female athletes should be respected...but shouldn’t they have been from the start?
Research conducted by a team at Cambridge suggests that even media coverage of female athletes reveals a widespread trend towards sexism. The group found that when female Olympians are described, “men [are] being described as fastest, strong, biggest. For women, it’s unmarried, married, references to their age. There is an inequality there.”
The subtle delegation of a female athlete’s accomplishments to her relationships with men is a quiet, but certainly worrying, sign that sexism in sports is far from a “solved” problem. The misogyny may not be as overt as Riggs sneering that women “belong in the bedroom and the kitchen, in that order,” but it is certainly alive and kicking.
Truthfully, the real problem isn’t a single player like Riggs, spouting misogyny against women in sports. The problem is that his words were upheld as a real challenge to whether women deserve to be legitimized and respected in sports.
Some may say that this concern is outdated - that the “Battle of the Sexes” happened almost fifty years ago, and that the struggles that King faced are long dead.
Those people need to check their recent headlines.
On June 25, 2017, tennis player John McEnroe mentioned during an interview with NPR that he thought his colleague Serena Williams - a player widely accepted as one of the best living athletes - would be ranked “like 700 in the world” if she played on the men’s tennis circuit. In the same interview, he goes on to claim that he “hasn’t seen” a female tennis player that could stand muster against a male, and implies - at sixty years old - that he could beat Williams in a match.
Of course, his comments sparked widespread indignation, and drew a response from Williams herself, who told McEnroe to “please keep me out of statements that are not factually based.” Many of her angered supporters even called for a match reminiscent of the 1970 game between King and Riggs to set the record straight.
But here’s the problem with that approach: as satisfying as it may be in the short term, another so-called Battle of the Sexes would solve nothing in the long term. In fact, it might even be damaging to the hard-earned progress women in sports have already made.
Female athletes deserve respect for their achievements. If we admit that we need someone like Williams or King to disprove an offhand sexist comment made by a male colleague, what message are we sending? If we pit Williams against McEnroe in a symbolic match against misogyny in sports, we convey that a woman’s place as an athlete is fragile enough to affected by the outcome of a single match.
Billie Jean King was aware of the symbolism attached to her victory in the 1970s. But I would hope that today, we have enough respect for female athletes that comments like Riggs’ and McEnroe’s can be brushed away as the nonsense they are. We don’t need another hollow, symbolic victory to prove that female athletes should be respected.
Their accomplishments speak for themselves.
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