This article was originally published in October 1973.
The Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King extravaganza had all the earmarks of a pure media event, an enormous creation sculpted out of thin air for the promotion of after-shave lotions, hair sprays, razor blades and candy bars. The contrary, however, may be true. What the papers and broadcasters were trying to treat casually and with predictable jokes seemed to have in fact a ferocious life of its own, a subterranean significance that kept confounding the manipulators and commentators. It pushed through the many layers of frivolity, driving the happenings in the Astrodome to near hysteria, frightening Howard Cosell and nearly wiping out whoever Bobby Riggs really is.
Before and after the event, writers for the New York Times, for example, were searching and apprehensive. “With no titles or playing for one’s country at stake, the match is really much ado about nothing… What, then, is all the fuss about?” asked Neil Amour on the day of the match; he guessed that it was about money. The following day, John O’Connor wrote: “Perhaps it’s just that the national trauma of Watergate demands psychic release. There has to be some explanation for the national absurdity of the ‘tennis battle of the sexes.’”
The truth, of course, is in the slogan—“The Battle of the Sexes.” By some magic of timing and circumstances, this confrontation between an aging playboy hustler and a tennis-obsessed woman came to symbolize many of the resentments and excitements that constitute the mixed-up American male-female relationship at the moment. During the week before the match, I was surprised at the number of normally intelligent and sophisticated men who said to me, “I hope he kills her,” or words to that effect—statements clearly not for public consumption and usually followed by qualifications and tense jokes. Women pointedly said nothing at all on the subject to me but seemed to be whispering a great deal among themselves. Media representatives were drawn to the event but generally couldn’t see what was in front of their eyes. Was it all about the new tennis boom? Was it about a quirky little “happy hustler”? They kept circling around.
By 8 o’clock on the night, millions of hearts were pounding and the jokes were drying up. TV-viewers gathered in groups and at parties to watch, too excited to sit quietly in their homes. The pictures from Texas were a daze of surreal images and sounds, particularly in color: the band pounding and the girls kicking; huge black athletes reclining at ringside amongst the pink and yellow movie stars; Howard Cosell in a tuxedo; grotesque caricatures of Bobby and Billie during the station breaks; the entrance of the gladiators, she borne aloft in a feathered conch, he in a ricksha pulled by showgirls; the presentation of a writhing pig from Billie to Bobby, of a giant candy bar from Bobby to Billie. The atmosphere was filled with orgiastic excitement and confusion. The first game actually began before Cosell was aware of it.
As the match itself progressed, the hostility between men and women in the audience—and between Cosell and Rosemary Casals in their TV commentary—came loudly out in the open. On the one hand, it was like the annual boys-against-the-girls basketball game where each side expresses its chauvinism in a refreshingly explicit way while at the same time wrestling and crashing into each other in a tantalizing sexual game. On a more obvious level, the spectators found it possible to sweep away all the politeness that clutters up man-woman contacts today and to groan and yell and pound their feet about these perplexities. Many men who have been officially supporting their wives’ liberation and who had even been publicly putting down Bobby as a loudmouth know-nothing, were suddenly, if secretly, pleading with him to hold together, to keep going, to win. Women, once they smelled blood, were calling for the total destruction of the enemy. It was a ritual drama on a vast scale, releasing a flood of angers and resentments from a whole nation of spectators.
Bobby Riggs was an odd sort of sacrificial goat. He gave everyone the impression that he was on top of the situation while the pre-match promotion was accelerating, but it seems now that he probably wasn’t. Just before his match with Margaret Court in early summer he had stumbled into the electric field of the Women’s Lib movement, setting off a shower of sparks. This startled him but he apparently liked the glitter of it and tried to keep it going. Once he located the anti-Lib groove, he found it profitable to be more and more arrogant, but at the same time his age, his dumpy appearance and his dinky style of tennis seemed to cast him as a plucky underdog, a crafty old pro who was forced to use the skill of a lifetime to deal with the brute strength and speed of his dumb juniors—this a venerable and beloved type in American sports. He projected a persona which was sufficiently hateful but vaguely cute. Thus the male-female competition did not become uncomfortably blatant too early; jokes drifted around him, naked antagonisms were masked, and the drama could proceed.
It was early in the first set, however, that Howard Cosell said painfully, “The comedy has gone out of Bobby Riggs.” We looked at the screen and it wasn’t Bobby Riggs at all, but an older person with not a bad face, obviously worn out and sweaty. This person—whom we saw in close-up, not as an actor on a distant stage—did not seem a proper butt for the fan’s jeers, but of course the ritual, once in motion, had to grind on to its inevitable conclusion.
The problem is that there was no final catharsis. The tragic hero-villain evaporated during a double fault. Women were left with a victim who was somehow unworthy of their fury, and men in any case just plain lost. Many men in the Astrodome audience seemed to be taking it very grumpily, to judge from their expressions, and one can imagine the male contingent at all the TV parties turning sullen and unpleasant.
After the fact, some of the newspaper writers were finally aware of what had happened, and their hearts were on their sleeves. Larry Merchant in the New York Post was almost suicidal: “All right, men, quit brooding and get to the dishes. Make sure the beds have hospital corners. And on the way to the supermarket why don’t you stop off at the doctor's office for a little vasectomy.”
Despite the fact that Mrs. King’s victory has generally been judged a satisfactory, even chivalrous, ending to this saga–blessed the following day even by Senators Mansfield and Scott–the underlying problems obviously still rankle, perhaps even more so. This illustrates one of the problems with mass media: TV has demonstrated again its capacity to focus the entire country on a single event, unifying millions of people, for the space of those moments, as they have rarely been before. But the watchers may expect actual solutions to come out of this experience, whereas, as in the case of Bobby and Billie, they may end up with only a gigantic caricature of the problem.