Recently debuting in theaters everywhere is a movie called ‘Battle of the Sexes’. It’s a movie about a tennis match in 1973 that became the event known as the Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billy Jean King. Bobby Riggs was a former Wimbledon champion who swept the gentlemen’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles events in 1939. Billy Jean King, well don’t we all know who she is? But just in case, she won 39 grand slam titles, her last grand slam title in 1980.
I remember watching that match on our black and white TV. I remember cheering for Billy Jean to win. I knew Bobby Riggs was some kind of former slam champion but at 59 he seemed SO OLD and she was only 29 (which was not young to a 14 year old) so he just couldn’t beat her! And all of his chauvinistic talk had me really fired up! After all who in 1973 thought girls should be equals to boys in sports? Well I did, but not everyone else at that time did. In fact most did not. So this tennis match turned ‘Battle of the Sexes’ really became the spark that began a movement that allowed girls the same opportunities in sports in schools as boys. Billy Jean was right, it wasn't about a tennis match. It was about social change.
Spoiler alert—Billy Jean beat Bobby Riggs and rather convincingly 6-4, 6-3, 6-3. But more than winning the $100,000 purse, she won the promise for every girl in the world, the promise that there is a place in sports for every child, not just the boys. I believe that by her very public match against a male peer and by her victory, she brought light to a very dark subject; the role of girls in sports.
In 1973 I was a teenager who just wanted the chance to compete for my school in the sports I loved. Playing sports was my salvation and being able to compete was my love. For many of you reading this you never knew a time when girls didn’t compete for their high school teams. But for some of us, 1973 only allowed for us to play intramural sports against girls from within our school only. For me, 1974 was the first year Title 9 was enforced and it forced our school district to provide interscholastic sports for the girls. It meant girls were able to compete on teams for basketball, volleyball, softball, swimming, tennis, and track against other girls from all the other schools in the district just like the boys.
I can’t think of any other athlete that has done as much to open the door to opportunity as Billy Jean King did for girls everywhere but most especially here in the USA. And much to my joy I had the chance to tell her. I don’t care how sappy I look, it was a moment I won’t forget, meeting this iconic woman who helped open the door for me to live my dream in high school and being able to tell her, “Thank you” not just for me but for my two daughters and for girls everywhere!