Sports History Files: Billie Jean King in the arena, Part 1

This week I’m devoting this blog to a three-part retrospective on Billie Jean King, who defeated Bobby Riggs in “The Battle of the Sexes” on Sept. 20, 1973. I’m particularly interested in her enduring public persona and how she embodies an ideal that has eluded other women’s sports leaders. Other posts in this series will appear on Wednesday and Friday.

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My first heroines were women who simply got out into the world, and because I could read about them: Clara Barton and Florence Nightingale, war-time nurses and social reformers, and Juliette Low, the founder of the Girl Scouts.

They were the subjects of few biographies I recall being available at my local public library and aimed at girls my age in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

While these women accomplished many great things, their public spheres developed out of traditional “women’s work.” I never saw myself as a nurse, or a teacher, and never really took to scouting. Home economics was a more disastrous subject for me than math. As I developed an affinity for sports, I found no corresponding point of reference.

anecessaryspectacleAlthough I wasn’t necessarily searching for such a figure, she came along at a crucial period in my pre-teen life and for women in America.

I was baby-sitting one night in September 1973, watching what was dubbed “The Battle of the Sexes.” There was Billie Jean King entering the Astrodome on a throne, and Bobby Riggs proudly hoisting a pig while wearing a “Sugar Daddy” warm-up jacket. Then she beat him and shut up a bunch of men who blabbed that women didn’t belong in the arena of sports.

And Howard Cosell narrated the whole bloody thing.

I was 12, and euphoric, and soon after bought a Wilson Billie Jean King Cup racket and took tennis lessons.

Friday marks the 40th anniversary of that match, which was spectacle, social statement and so much more rolled up into one night in Houston. Was it “rigged?” Did her male counterpart throw the match to pay off a gambling debt?

That’s a decidedly different angle to one of many pieces written to coincide with the 40th anniversary — some respectful, some tiresome in their reminders how terribly sexist the 1970s were.

The milestone also prompted the first profile of an athlete on the PBS program “American Masters” that first aired last week. There have long been those who think the King mythology has not been sufficiently scrutinized, and that this documentary oversimplified a familiar narrative:

King’s childhood realization—if the intellectual complexity of looking around and wondering, “Where is everybody else?” can be believed—suggests a more nuanced and exploratory analysis of the evolution of her sport and how King evolved into an activist. This episode recounts events where King took a leadership role in establishing a pro tennis circuit for women, campaigning for equal prize money and establishing herself as a positive role model for the feminist movement, but it doesn’t get to the root of why King took on that position, what about her personality and life philosophy led her to those choices.

That’s a fair point, and Kevin McFarland, the critic here, does seem to blame the formula of “American Masters” as much as anything for what he feels is missing:

Far more intriguing is what King describes as the darkest period of her life: being forcibly outed as gay by her ex-lover at a time when homosexuality threatened to make anyone a pariah. King mentions her secretary and ex-lover Marilyn Barnett in passing at one point, acknowledging she was just coming to terms with her sexuality around the time of the Riggs match. And when the lawsuit comes up toward the end of the documentary, the most untapped period of King’s life gets but a few minutes of screen time. At a time in modern culture when King’s introspection on being forced out of the closet and coming to terms with her sexuality might do the most good, American Masters’ structure of introductory biography summarizes where it should hunker down and ruminate.

(The film could have done without interjections from Hillary Clinton and Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett. These two women were selected to be representative for the rest of us in explaining King’s impact on society? Come on.)

In Wednesday’s post I will delve into that instance of a rare, unflattering focus being put on a woman — especially during those times — when the lawsuit against King was made public.

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