ESPN recently ran an article by Don Van Natta Jr. entitled “The Match Maker.” In this article, Van Natta makes a solid case that tennis star Bobby Riggs lost his famous “battle of the sexes” match with Billie Jean King on purpose at the behest of the mafia as part of a deal to repay gambling debts.
By implication, this means that Riggs could have won the match easily, but chose not to. King did not defeat Riggs, he lost on purpose, rendering King’s victory cheap and unearned.
New York Times columnist Gail Collins came out against the ESPN article, claiming that the chief witness Van Natta consulted (an assistant golf pro from Tampa, FL named Hal Shaw) fabricated the story, and King did in fact beat Riggs fair and square.
Feminists and female athletes everywhere have seen the Van Natta article as an attempt to discredit one of the greatest and most important victories for women and women’s sports either on or off the court. King’s defeat of Riggs proved that women could hold their own in one-on-one sports against their male counterparts.
King’s victory was a good thing for equality. It really doesn’t matter if Riggs lost on purpose or not. What would matter is if things had been reversed, if King had thrown the match for the mafia and lost. That would have set women’s sports back in the eyes of men. But it was Riggs who lost, and regardless of the manner in which he did, the ultimate result was a good thing for women and women’s sports.
So while Van Natta’s article is interesting and a good piece of investigative journalism, the point is ultimately moot because of how much time has passed and how far women’s sports have come since 1973.