Friday, September 20, 2013

Tennis and Equal Pay

Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs

Recently, ESPN has run several stories detailing the possibility that Bobby Riggs threw the infamous 1973 "Battle of the Sexes" tennis match against Billy Jean King.  According to a source, who has suddenly come out of hiding after forty years, Riggs had a serious gambling problem and, by losing the match, would settle a score with the mob.  The story itself seems somewhat dubious but has been been making headlines.

Billie Jean King has maintained that she beat Riggs fair and square.  One positive, if there is one, that can be garnered from the "fixed game" accusation, is that Billie Jean King's importance to sports and social justice circles has been brought to wider attention.  Last week, the PBS "American Masters" series broadcast a documentary on King's career.  While her accomplishments on the tennis court are numerous (39 Grand Slam titles), her desire to use tennis as an activist platform for diversity and equal pay are just as noteworthy.

In the documentary, King's working-class background is highlighted.  Part of an athletic family, young Billie Jean first took to basketball as a girl before being introduced to tennis by a friend.  Uncomfortable with the country club atmosphere, which was not exactly open to her anyway, Billie Jean learned the fundamentals of tennis in a Long Beach public park as part of a free clinic.  Billie Jean commented: "Where's everybody else?  I don't see people of color.  That's not right."  King recognized that tennis was an elitist sport but also that she could use it as a platform to promote equal access for people of all backgrounds.  One also sees the convergence of race, class and gender in the interviews with an older generation of British women who, in the late 1960s, viewed King as "too competitive."

Billie Jean was also instrumental in the formation of the first (tennis) women's players' union.  The "American Masters" documentary tries to give context to the emerging feminist movement.  The issue of equal pay loomed large in the working world generally.  In tennis, the prize differential between male and female players was enormous, with men often times receiving twice the amount of prize money.  Also covered is the importance of Title IX, which, among other things, resulted in the first college scholarships being offered to female athletes.  Much was on the line when Riggs challenged Billie Jean to the match (Riggs had already defeated Margaret Court) and King rose to the occasion.

Serena and Venus Williams
Venus and Serena Williams are part of a newer generation of players who expressed their admiration for King's activism.  As children, the Williams sisters were part of World Team Tennis, a group King started.  Venus herself has been a leading figurehead for equal prize money allocation.  While players have mobilized over this issue for four decades, equal pay was only awarded at Wimbledon and the French Open during the past six years.

Written by Toni

Photo Credits: ESPN


American Masters: Billie Jean King

ESPN: Bobby Riggs

ESPN: Venus Williams and Equal Pay

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