Wednesday, August 28, 2013
Fixed matches and cultural capital
A new article in ESPN The Magazine (which includes an embedded video) tells the story of rumors that Bobby Riggs tanked the famous "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against Billie Jean King, which was played 40 years ago next month. The touchstone of the piece is an interview with a man who claims to have overheard two mob bosses and a mob lawyer discussing Riggs' tanking several months before the match, although rumors that Riggs threw it have abounded for 40 years.
Two notable things in the article. First, Riggs' son and his best friend both suggested that Riggs' famous pre-match chauvinism was all for show, that he believed in gender equality and had worked with a female coach at the start of his career. Second, the story ends with Riggs and King speaking several days before Riggs died in 1995; King says she told Riggs how important their match was to women and the women's movement. "'"Well, we did it," Bobby Riggs finally told her. "We really made a difference, didn't we?""
What if Riggs did tank? The match is a cultural milestone because it purported to show that women could successfully compete with men. That idea is absolutely true, of course (although not in high-level professional sports, and I wish the sports conversation would move away from women competing with men so we could enjoy women's sports on their own merits). But the match no longer represents the idea if King did not actually beat Riggs. On the other hand, suppose Riggs tanked because he saw that he could advance the cause of women's rights and women's equality (ideas to which he perhaps was sympathetic) by losing. Regardless of whether the win was real, it laid the groundwork for what we now, 40 years on, understand as true. And his dying words to King suggest he may have understood that.
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