Call me an outcast or worse, but even as a child when tennis hustler Bobby Riggs was at the nadir of his fame in the 1970s I saw him for what he was, one of the first cultural warriors fighting out against political correctness.
Bobby Riggs who died in 1995, is in the news again for being the second banana in the current film, Battle of the Sexes, starring Emma Stone and Steve Carell as Riggs. If you lived through this time period, the perception was then as it is now that Riggs was a sexist bullying lout and that Billie Jean King liberated women the world over by beating Riggs. I write in defense of Riggs. If you didn’t find any humor in Riggs’ antics and were truly outraged by him, the joke is on you, and you are probably so consumed by identification politics that you missed the silliness and entertainment value of it all.
To refresh your memory, Bobby Riggs at one point in his life was a world-class tennis player and at a later point, a regular PT Barnum. From 1939-1941 Bobby Riggs won three majors — Wimbledon and what is now the U.S. Open, twice. But by the 1970s he was nothing more than tennis trivia that few remembered or were even aware of.
Then in the early 1970s, a time when Americans either loved or loathed the fictional Archie Bunker of All in the Family, Riggs came into something good, something that would make him a household name. He became a one-man carnival portraying himself as the ultimate male chauvinist taking on the newly formed and humorless women’s liberation movement with his infamous Riggs Pigs and challenging the top female tennis players in the world to matches.
Riggs, by then 30 years past his playing prime, lived up to his rhetoric, stunning the world and striking a decisive blow for male physical superiority by handily beating Margaret Court, who at the time was one of the top rated female players.
This led to a crazy period where Riggs was everywhere, from a guest appearance on the sitcom The Odd Couple to being a fixture on the nightly news. Like any good showman, Riggs played his role to the hilt and seemed to revel in being the person feminists loved to hate. It was obvious shtick, made funnier by the reaction of feminists who were just as prissy then as they are today.
Feminists finally let out an audible sigh of relief when 29-year-old Billie Jean King beat the 55-year-old Riggs in a tennis match that had as much hype to it as the great Ali-Frazier fights of that era.
The current movie aside, I still think of Riggs every time some carping feminist moans about income inequality in professional sports. Whenever I hear such jibber jabber, old man Riggs routing Court comes to mind. When the top female athlete is as good as their male counterpart and can generate the same revenue and ratings, then they should earn the same. In the meantime, don’t waste my time bringing up such nonsense.
There is nothing as perversely puritanical as the politically correct set, a situation that becomes depressingly truer each day. In looking at old photos of Riggs’ warm up jacket from his match with Billie Jean King, you’ll notice jacket is decked out with his sponsor’s name, Sugar Daddy (get it?), from the candy maker Tootsie Roll Industries. Can you imagine the firestorm of protests Tootsie Roll Industries would face if it sponsored someone like Riggs today?
The fact remains, not that anyone is allowed to say it, when a 29-year-old player in her prime won the Battle of the Sexes, it could only have happened against a 55-year-old hustler well past his prime.
In light of recent news, I can’t help but point out that today’s women would be treated with more respect and dignity from a Riggs-like chauvinist than modern male feminists like Harvey Weinstein and Anthony Weiner.
So here’s to you Bobby Riggs, to your humor, your tennis skill, your bravado and for pointing out that there is indeed something special about being male. And for all the Riggs haters still with us, take a cue from Billie Jean King who got Bobby Riggs, the person, better than most. According to King, ashe spoke with Riggs by phone shortly before he died of cancer. Her last words to him? “I love you.”