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Women in sports: Title IX and the "Battle of the Sexes"

Billie Jean King playing Bobbie Riggs in the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes"
Billie Jean King playing Bobbie Riggs in the 1973 "Battle of the Sexes"

This week, the University of Michigan celebrated the 40th anniversary of Title IX, with a host of speakers and panels discussing the historic legislation and its impact on girls, women and the United States itself. 

Before Title IX, only one in 30 girls played high school sports. 

Today, more than half do. 

After a single paragraph, and an unforgettable tennis match, that changed our nation forever.

It all started pretty quietly. 

Just a sentence buried in the back of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. 

“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 educational program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”

Just a sentence – one that seems pretty straightforward to us, even self-evident.  But that little line stirred up our society in ways that few pieces of legislation ever have. 

We call it Title IX – and perhaps only the Civil Rights Acts changed our nation more dramatically – or did more good. 

But nowhere in that powerful paragraph do the authors say one word about sports. 

It’s not really about sports, but educational opportunities.

It says a lot about Americans’ unequaled belief in the value of school sports, that we consider them essential to a comprehensive education. 

Unlike the Civil Rights Acts, Title IX didn’t even register with most Americans when it passed.  But the NCAA’s leaders recognized its potential immediately, and did everything they could to stop it. 

They were joined by congressmen, school presidents, principals, athletic directors and coaches coast to coast, all trying to limit it, or kill it altogether.

But the durable Title IX has survived every attempt to cut it down. 

Still, it seemed like just an arcane legal issue, until a seemingly meaningless tennis match – just an exhibition between an old man and a woman 26 years his junior -- made it very real, very fast.    

The man happened to be a 55-year old guy named Bobby Riggs, a Hall of Fame player who had won six major championships, who swept Wimbledon’s singles, doubles, and mixed doubles titles – in 1939.      

He was also an incorrigible hustler.

When he first challenged Billie Jean King, who would win 39 major titles, to an exhibition match, she declined. 

But after Riggs crushed top-ranked Margaret Court, who was half his age, King felt compelled to accept.

They would play for the biggest payday in the history of the sport – and bragging rights that would be shared by half the country’s population.    

King had no illusions about the stakes.  “I accepted the challenge,” she said, “so that girls and women could feel positive about participating in athletics.”

On September 20, 1973, in front of 50 million Americans watching on TV, about a quarter of our population, and a Houston Astrodome packed with more than 30,000 spectators -- both still American tennis records -- King stayed strong and focused, and won emphatically.

In the process, so did millions of American girls, most of whom had not been born yet. 

“There should be nothing,” King said, “to stop them from pursuing and fulfilling their dreams.”  Before Title IX and the Battle of the Sexes, one in 30 girls played high school sports.  Today, more than half do. 

Riggs wanted to win, and badly – but his theatrics were mostly promotional. He had been taught the game by a woman, won many mixed doubles titles, and thought women should play sports.

It was an act – but a hell of an act. 

Riggs and King became close friends, and talked often.

The night before Riggs died of cancer, King called him to say, “I love you.” 

It all started with a single sentence -- and ended with one, too. 

In between, everything changed.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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