On Friday, the country celebrated the 40th anniversary of the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match that Billie Jean King won over Bobby Riggs. The match was one of the most seminal moments in the women’s rights movement. Because of that significance, many would just rather ignore the recent evidence that has come to light that does not fit–and hardly advances–the narrative that the 29-year-old King beat the 55-year-old Riggs fair and square at the Houston Astrodome before more than 30,000 people and even more who were captivated in front of their television sets.
In a thoroughly reported story last month, Don Van Natta, Jr. of ESPN presented circumstantial evidence that Riggs may have tanked the match so he could pay off gambling debts he may have had with mobsters. Van Natta’s report, titled, “The Match Maker: Bobby Riggs, The Mafia and The Battle of the Sexes,” is worth reading in full for all of the revelations.
Van Natta is a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a member of the mainstream media club. He has written books like the acclaimed First Off The Tee, Her Way: The Hopes and Ambitions of Hillary Clinton, and a book on Babe Didrikson titled, Wonder Girl. He is hardly a chauvinist or a writer whom the establishment press derides. But even Van Natta cannot challenge with extensive reporting anything that challenges one of the left’s most cherished narratives without considerable blowback.
As Van Natta acknowledges, the “Battle of the Sexes” was “a moment that the tennis world cherished” and, since tennis was ahead of American society on gender equality issues, “many tennis people, including tennis writers, fell in love with that narrative and maybe even got a little invested in it.” So nobody asked Riggs follow-up questions if he tanked the match even though many suspected that he may have, especially since he did not prepare for the match and many of his returns barely made it to the net.
Nobody asked Barack Obama about his “composite” characters in a way some reporters are asking Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ). Reporters had to run with the myth that Sarah Palin was a “Caribou Barbie.” And, though it can be legitimately debated whether she could win a general election, all evidence points to the fact that she is the most influential figure when it comes to influencing conservative politics, as was admitted by those like former South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint and current conservative lion Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who said he would not be in the United States Senate had it not been for Palin. Yet, the mainstream media either ignorantly, in which case they are showing their incompetence, or deliberately, in which case they are showing their blatant biases while feigning neutrality, declare that Palin has no influence whatsoever in American politics while continuing to follow her every move.
Similarly, a PBS’s fim, about Billie Jean King, the first “American Masters” series documentary that profiled a sports figures, does not even mention that the matched could have been rigged or Riggs could have thrown the match either to settle a gambling debt or to ensure more hype for a rematch. The White House screened the movie on Friday.
Instead, it furthers the narrative. The program quotes King as saying she had always been “dedicated to equal rights and opportunity and I knew tennis would be a platform.” It also features those like Hillary Clinton and President Barack Obama’s senior adviser Valerie Jarrett.
Hal Shaw, 79, a retired golf instructor was an “an assistant golf pro at the Palma Ceia Golf and Country Club in south Tampa” told Van Natta that in late 1972 or early 1973 when he heard men’s voices while repairing clubs “in the bag room after midnight.” Hal reportedly “shut off his bench light, locked the door and watched four men enter the pro shop, three of whom he recognized: Frank Ragano, a mob lawyer and member at Palma Ceia, whom Shaw says he knew; Santo Trafficante Jr., then the leader of the Florida mob and Carlos Marcello, the leader of the New Orleans mob. Shaw says he recognized Trafficante and Marcello from their newspaper photographs.”
According to Van Natta’s report:
Shaw claimed that while he listened from a concealed perch, Ragano described everything that the middle-aged tennis hustler Bobby Riggs was going to do over the next nine months: Play the world’s top-ranked woman, Margaret Court. Defeat Court, thus luring Billie Jean King into a match to defend the honor of female tennis players. Hype the event to the rafters, attracting enormous international attention. Then lose the match, after which the Mafia would forgive Riggs for $100,000 in gambling debts.
In a subsequent story, Van Natta reported that others–like Don Boyd–said Riggs had once said to him, “It wouldn’t do much good if a man beat a woman. There wouldn’t be any money in that.” Boyd felt everybody knew that match was fixed.
But facts and evidence do not matter to those who are so heavily invested in the narrative.
New York Times columnist Gail Collins immediately lambasted Van Natta’s report without even reading it, saying that the mobsters mentioned in the report would not have met in public; but, in so doing, Collins conceded why she was so dismissive of Van Natta’s stellar reporting.
“If this were any other sports victory, we could just shrug and move on,” she wrote in the New York Times after Van Natta’s story was published. “But the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match was a central story in the history of the American women’s movement. The great hurdle women were trying to overcome in the 1970s was ridicule, and Riggs, who had built himself a new career as a self-styled chauvinist pig, was all about the sneer.”
As Van Natta wrote in an online chat about his story, if “Gail Collins had bothered to look at the photographs with the story, she would have recognized what she quoted Pileggi saying isn’t true: we published a photograph taken in the early 1970s of Frank Ragano, Santo Trafficate Jr. and Frank Ragano having dinner at a restaurant in New York, looking perfectly content to have their photograph taken.”
Collins, the type of writer that criticizes those on the right she feels are not intellectually curious enough, then declares, “case closed.” Facts be damned to her. The narrative must be kept alive. It must never die. It must never be tainted. And it surely cannot have an asterisk by it like the home-run numbers put up in baseball’s “juiced” era.
The case is hardly “closed,” though.
In an ESPN chat Van Natta wrote:
I reviewed all the archival film that I could get my hands on: the film of the Battle of the Sexes match, broadcast on ABC. This was great fun because I remember watching it at the age of 9– the footage I watched included the broadcast and all the commercials. I then gathered other film footage: of the Riggs/Court match, of Riggs’ interviews over the years, the 60 Minutes profile done of Riggs by Mike Wallace in the summer of 1973. I read every word I could find on the match, on Riggs, on Billie Jean King. There wasn’t much written about rumors of a fix. But when I started interviewing people, I found that in tennis circles, people had suspected Riggs had thrown the match for years. In fact, during the first set of the King-Riggs match, as Riggs struggled, someone yelled out at the LA Tennis Club, “Looks like Bobby bet on Billie Jean!”
He also thoroughly interviewed men who suspected a fix for 40 years and many more who were suspicious of the way Riggs played. He investigated “Riggs’ background– his gambling, hustling and his extensive mob ties,” and “coincidences started piling up,” and “a pretty strong circumstantial case emerged”:
When Larry Riggs, Bobby’s son, told me that his father was a golfing partner with Jackie “The Lackey” Cerone, a mafia hit man from Chicago, and that associates of Cerone had visited his father in LA prior to the King match, it was a very important reporting moment. There was more here than just a few curious coincidences. What were the men doing there? Larry Riggs asked. Bobby Riggs wouldn’t say, told his son to mind his own business, and his son has wondered what business they had with his father so close to the match for nearly 40 years. “Possible,” Larry Riggs says of a fix.
He spent three months on the story, interviewing people from Florida to Chicago to Los Angeles. He had Shaw tell him the story three times to make sure he was telling him the same story.
King, though, could not even bear to question whether the fix was in.
“So I think to wait 40 years is pretty below the belt, I think, I don’t know,” King said in response to the article on Fox Sports 1. “Maybe they’re still upset a girl beat a guy, I don’t know.”
Except Shaw did not come forward with his story until now because he feared for his life.
Nancy Lieberman, another female pioneer in women’s basketball, said “it doesn’t matter” whether Riggs tanked the match.
“Everybody got what they wanted,” Lieberman told ESPN. “It was the biggest stage ever. Billie Jean King paved a path for me and for others. Everybody won. There was no negative.”
The “Battle of the Sexes” was celebrated this week, culminating with that movie screening at the White House. Evidence that the match could have been fixed was probably not even brought up, and women’s groups and those in the mainstream press seem uncomfortable even talking about it. But facts are facts, and any discussion or narrative henceforth of the “Battle of the Sexes” that does not mention some of the revelations in Van Natta’s piece is not worth taking seriously.