Billie Jean King's secret motivation in the 'Battle of the Sexes'

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

Forty-four years ago Billie Jean King met Bobby Riggs in an exhibition tennis match dubbed the “Battle of the Sexes.” It was part sport, part circus and part fight over equal rights.

King didn’t lack for motivation.

There was a desire to shut up an old tennis star turned hustler who spent months cracking male chauvinist jokes. There was the chance to prove women were great players in their own right. There were the promotional possibilities for the Women’s Tennis Association, which King had recently co-founded after a dispute over equal pay.

There were also competitive instincts, pride and, of course, the $100,000 winner-take-all purse.

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And there was something King kept quiet at the time because she didn’t want to put it at risk should she lose.

Title IX.

“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

That’s Title IX. All of it.

“Only 37 words,” King told Yahoo Sports. “It’s packed with meaning.”

Particularly for female athletes at the time, and generations to come, for whom the law opened up endless opportunities at the high school and college levels, changing sports in America forever. In 1973 though, the still new law was under immediate assault from legal challenges and a political lobbying group to reverse or at least strip it of any power.

“I didn’t bring it up at the time, but I was thinking in the back of my mind, how am I going help Title IX stay a law?” King said. “It meant everything to me.”

The Battle of the Sexes remains an iconic event in not just sports but American society. Some 90 million people watched around the world as the 29-year-old King defeated the 55-year-old Riggs, a former Wimbledon champion, in front of 30,000 fans inside the Houston Astrodome.

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs before their epic match. (AP)

The movie “Battle of the Sexes” opens this weekend in select cities, with Emma Stone playing King and Steve Carell playing Riggs. It is equal parts nostalgia, comedy and feel-good triumph. That the whole thing is being revived again is more than King, now 73, could’ve imagined, especially as she watched Stone nail her voice and mannerisms to perfection.

“If you told me when I was 12 years old there’s going to be a movie about you and the best actress in the world is going to play you, I’d have never believed it,” said King, who retired with 12 major singles championships.

That’s not to say King wasn’t aware how big the match was in the moment. She could handle the spectacle. She was comfortable with the media attention. Riggs’ promotional antics and putdowns didn’t bother her.

“Keep talking, Bobby,” she famously said.

What sent her into heavy training and intense concentration, though, was that as much of a sideshow as this was, she knew there were plenty of people who would take the result as a cue on how to view real life.

And that mostly meant Title IX. While it came to represent the obligation of schools to offer equal opportunities to female athletes, it was originally about assuring equal access to the classroom.

“There used to be quotas in medical schools, 5 percent women only, things like that,” King said. “The word ‘activity’ came to include sports, but when it was written, sports was an afterthought.”

As silly as it was that the result of a man vs. woman tennis match could affect the fate of generations of female students and athletes, it somehow did. Riggs had previously defeated Margaret Court, another top female player, and made a mockery of women players. King represented an even bigger stage and challenge though. To draw attention to the match, Riggs kept up his relentless campaign. He found plenty of support.

“He was a master promoter,” King said of Riggs, who passed away in 1995 at the age of 77. The spotlight became all consuming, sparking debates and arguments from boardrooms to kitchen tables.

“This match was about social change,” King said. “I knew what it meant because I was on tour, playing, and people would come up to me as I traveled the country. I’d listen to them. Some were angry. Some were saying, ‘Come on, you’ve got to win.’ Some were saying, ‘Why the hell are you doing this?’”

Billie Jean King and Emma Stone attend the ‘Battle of the Sexes’ premiere in Los Angeles. (Getty Images)

King actually liked Riggs and found him entertaining. His act, she said, was mostly an act. Her only regret was that she was painted as fighting for women’s equality when she says she just wants equality for all.

“Everyone can be an influencer,” said King, who still runs a leadership foundation and remains as iconic and as dedicated in sports and social progress circles. “Women can influence men. Men can influence women. We need to broaden our thought process on this.”

She did present Riggs with a baby pig just before the match, though, as a joke. Riggs, meanwhile, tried to play in a yellow “Sugar Daddy” jacket that the candy maker of the same name paid him to wear.

As for the match, King won in straight sets, running Riggs around and tiring out his old legs. It was seen as a milestone moment for female athletes, if only for the rare television exposure for women’s sports.

Riggs acknowledged he had underestimated King’s game. It was later revealed his pre-match training consisted mostly of drinking cocktails and partying in L.A. Rumors of Riggs throwing the match still carry on.

King dismisses the concept that Riggs tanked, either in an attempt to secure an even more lucrative rematch (it never happened), in an effort to score a big gambling payout or as part of some mafia plot. She says she knows he wanted to win.

“I called Bobby the day before he died and we talked,” King said. “I told him I loved him. He said he loved me. At the match, Bobby was all about the money. I was all about social change. He would never agree with me about the importance. Then, on his last day, he finally did.

“Before we hung up he said, ‘We did make a difference, didn’t we?’”

Forty-four years of difference. Title IX, after all, is still the law of the land.