I told a few stories during Saturday night’s Arkansas Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame induction.
Since this was an Arkansas-related event, I limited my anecdotes and reflections from 40-plus years of sports reporting to Arkansas stories. I pushed aside Texas stories and Memphis stories.
Ricky Duke, our reporter who did the feature story on me for Sunday’s Log Cabin, was fascinated by the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs tennis "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match I covered at the Houston Astrodome in 1973. I was asked if I realized at the time that event would become such a watershed event (a benchmark for Title IX, gender equity and a wave of participation in women’s sports).
No. All of us at the time thought this was just a novelty, made-for-TV fun extravaganza, the likes of which had never been seen before.
But since some folks have asked about the story, I’ll tell it here with some excerpts from a 2001 column I did on reflections after a television movie of the event.
Hardly any of us who witnessed that event at Houston’s Astrodome realized that we experienced a significant but delicate shift in our culture.
At the time, the match was a fun thing, a novelty — with a heavy influx of celebrity spectators that was a forerunner of the made-for-TV, heavily marketed, heavily hyped extravaganzas that have become commonplace in a multi-media society.
As Riggs and King volleyed in the climax of an artificially created confrontation that captivated the country for a month, we actually witnessed a realistic tug of war — possibly the inevitable hand-to-hand conflict — between feminism and chauvinism.
Feminism — which translated into women’s rights for the Venus types but an ominous female threat to a male-dominated society for the Mars types — was an ugly word in polite company at the time. Males who protected that domination were termed "male chauvinist pigs."
Riggs, at 55, was a former tennis star who was an old-fashioned hustler. He’d go for any angle, any hook that he had a chance to bring in dollars. He was a master of lob and spin and primitive smack and won many a wager by what we would term today as "messing with a person’s mind."
King was different from the accepted female athlete of the day. She usually won by strength, not finesse. She confronted authorities on the disparity between prize purses for men and women tennis players. She was aggressive and threatening.
There were few sports for women and girls at the time. Title IX, the legal teeth of gender equity today, was a year old and generally ignored. Females were supposed to be pretty and frilly and exude fragility and daintiness in whatever they competed.
The Astrodome match, "the Lobber vs. the Libber" became a P.T. Barnum-inspired, megaevent that often results when our games mirror our society.
(King) was a well-conditioned, 29-year-old professional athlete making a brash 55-year-old hustler look like ... a 55-year-old hustler trying to regain lost glory.
Our culture, initially shifting in a festive and subtle way, was not the same after that night. Like when Jackie Robinson began his major league baseball career in an all-white domain, when sports made a psychological and philosophical turn, society followed.
Today, as we view the onrushing, and ever-increasing current, it’s interesting to remember the trickle that began as a simple tennis match that was never really that simple.
(Sports columnist David MCCollum can be reached at 505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org)