On Friday the heavily anticipated “Battle of the Sexes” film was released, starring Emma Jones and Steven Carell, and is getting generally positive reviews (here, here and here). But most of the treatment of the film is tied to the current American political atmosphere, which is becoming a default media position for just about any subject.
For those of us who remember the Billie Jean King vs. Bobby Riggs match in 1973, the cultural dynamics of that evening in Houston (and more importantly, in the weeks leading up to it) cannot be properly treated in a film.
Selena Roberts’ “A Necessary Spectacle,” published in in 2005, is a solid account that puts the political and cultural contexts in a largely proper perspective.
Also in This Issue: The Antagonisms for Margaret Court; The Lousy State of the NFL; Fritz Pollard, Football Pioneer; In Search of Tim Lincecum; Yankee Stadium Word Art; Remembering Jake LaMotta
I was inspired by King, for life, and still have the wooden Wilson Billie Jean King Cup racket I bought shortly after the event. For me, that moment transcended politics (I was 12), but I understand the political implications, even for a tennis exhibition, and why they resonate today.
It’s how those implications are being referenced that are troublesome, and not just for historical reasons.
The film’s directors, the husband-wife duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (of “Little Miss Sunshine” fame), weren’t overtly trying to draw parallels to Trump vs. Hillary as the film was being shot, although press “takes” are drowning in such myopia. Then the election happened, and we’re being told how King vs. Riggs has “lessons for the modern age.”
Well, it always has, but the sledgehammer is swinging elsewhere: Twenty-First Century Fox is donating 79 cents from each ticket sold during the opening weekend to the Women’s Sports Foundation, which King founded. The figure represents feminist claims of the general earning power of women compared to each dollar earned by men.
Because, hey, we still have a long way to go, baby.
Reading through pieces like those above, and others, about “Battle of the Sexes,” I feel like I need to step back into a time machine. Smithsonian magazine goes a little deeper than most of the rest, explaining King’s concurrent effort to create the Women’s Tennis Association. Back then, it a risky dare; now, it’s wildly successful and lucrative.
The always-candid King reflects in Marie Claire on the complications within her own life that added more stress to her preparations to play Riggs than she led on at the time.
As someone who’s covered women’s sports longer than many writers who jump on the topic when it becomes timely (and even a little hip), I get a little weary about what we’re supposed to make of that event in Houston, and King’s legacy and the cause of women’s sports.
It’s been 44 years since King beat Riggs, and 45 since the passage of Title IX. The world for female athletes has changed dramatically since then, and while I don’t doubt that “equality” remains unfulfilled, our sports media, women’s sports advocates and others invested in the issue have done a poor job defining, much less explaining, what this equality should consist of. Is it the same participation numbers, prize money, front office officials, sideline reporters, etc.?
Is it about numbers and statistics, or about what Title IX was originally intended to provide, equal “opportunity” for women in education? To give women the chance to direct the courses of their own individual lives?
We know that part of the equality equation has succeeded, and smashingly so. It isn’t that there aren’t problems, sexism and discrimination. This cannot be eradicated completely.
Billie Jean King’s legacy is cemented, but I don’t think book treatment has properly assessed the drive for women’s equality in sports, at least any without a hardline feminist approach, one that’s missing a realistic working definition of what’s trying to be achieved.
That book, and that broader legacy, remains stubbornly elusive.
Margaret Court Under Siege
Margaret Court appears in “The Battle of the Sexes,” played by actress Jessica McNamee as the tennis figure whose embarrassing loss to Riggs set up his encounter with King.
In recent years and in particular recent months, Court has come under fire in the tennis world and in her native Australia for her outspoken social views, including her opposition to same-sex marriage, and critical remarks about lesbians in tennis. This silly piece calls her “The Least Feminist Woman in the Battle of the Sexes.”
Attempts have been made to change the name of Margaret Court Arena in Melbourne Park. For a time, Google Maps temporarily changed it to Evonne Goolagong Arena. A Pentecostal minister, Court hasn’t backed down, including in “Margaret Court: The Autobiography,” published in 2016.
Much media treatment has hardly been sympathetic; Court may have found God but “lost the respect of a nation.” Yet surely she has plenty who likely agree with her in a country that lacks legalized gay marriage; is whitewashing her name from tennis facilities how a free country should respond?
I don’t agree with Court at all, but she shouldn’t be silenced, nor should her contributions to the sport in her homeland be erased. Those who preach tolerance but don’t always practice it undermine their own cause.
A Few Good Reads
- After an alarming late-stage diagnosis of CTE (a degenerative brain disease) was discovered in the brain of Aaron Hernandez, Dan Wetzel led the media chorus about how this might prove to be especially devastating to the NFL. It’s a new refrain of an old song that’s being played about the existential health of the sport. Many issues to unpack here, given the familiarity of the media narrative (SB post from Aug. 21), and no mention of any other level of football where Hernandez theoretically could have had his head battered long before he played a professional down. Given that Hernandez’ last game was at the age of 23, before his murder arrest, why isn’t this explored? Most of all, I’m concerned how this might be used to explain away the fact that he was a convicted killer with a history of being involved in criminal gangs. Any number of things could have led to the dark path Hernandez took, culminating with his suicide, but CTE is becoming a de facto explanatory tool for those with their own agendas;
- At The Atlantic, Patrick Hruby writes about efforts to find a new way to detect CTE (i.e., on living, rather than dead, humans);
- A brain scientist writes about why he lets his son play football;
- The lousy state of the NFL is about much more than concussions and brain trauma. The quality of the product on the field continues to be mediocre (SB post from last September) and is becoming more noticeable. At MMQB, Robert Klemko places the blame squarely at the feet of DeMaurice Smith, head of the player’s union, for pushing for a rookie wage scale that stockpiles young, inexperienced players and has gutted the “middle class” of team rosters;
- NFL ratings continue to slide, but it’s still early in the season and the factors are complex;
- The larger concern, not just for the NFL, but for those involved in sports television programming in general: live audiences are getting older, and younger viewers are proving to be more elusive to capture;
- How about this for career change? A former sportswriter is calling the offensive shots at Penn State, and is turning heads in the process;
- Fritz Pollard, a football pioneer, continues to be overlooked for more than his place in history in helping break the NFL color line;
- Must be a slow day at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which came up with the best sports town in America, a choice and a selection process very much off the beaten path;
- Artist Daniel Duffy has put the finishing touches on a “Yankee Stadium Word Art” work in which he wrote by hand the name of every player to don the pinstripes at Yankee Stadium from 1923-2008, then added the 2009 champs at the new place to include all 27 World Series winners in club history;
- Exploring the five ballparks of New York that aren’t around any longer: the original Yankee Stadium, Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field and Shea Stadium. Can you name the fifth?;
- Tim Lincecum’s seemingly fallen off the face of the earth, not having pitched in a year. A Bay Area sportswriter went to his hometown of Seattle in search of Lincecum, and while coming up dry, wrote a superb piece on one of baseball’s more recent phenoms, and what went wrong for him.
Jake LaMotta, 95, was a “Raging Bull” in real life, and his 1970 memoir became a Martin Scorsese film with the same name starring Robert DeNiro that elevated an already-rich personality to Hollywood immortality.
“Raging Bull” the film, released in 1980 and shot in black-and-white, was unflinchingly realistic in its honest portrayal of the raw violence of life in the ring. While Scorsese didn’t back away from depicting LaMotta’s brutal behavior away from it, a certain mythology emerged from the big screen, one that remade a key slice of boxing history, as Peter Bradshaw wrote in The Guardian: “Scorsese brilliantly amplified LaMotta’s operatic self-pity and defiance.”
The man famous for becoming the first boxer to defeat Sugar Ray Robinson (and lost to him in their five other bouts) and hold the world middleweight crown was a truly woeful real-life figure, as Joe Flaherty’s 1981 memorable story on LaMotta in Inside Sports details:
“The horror his early violence wreaked also didn’t stop him, in later years, from battering various wives for ‘love’ and numerous opponents for loot. LaMotta’s Life has been so unappetizingly gamy, so foully unpalatable, it bends the conventional limits of social understanding, as graphically documented in the film of his life, Raging Bull.
“Even those who shared the same mean streets can find no sympathy. An Irish trainer from the same boyhood Bronx said, ‘Look, he just went too far. I grew up there, too. We always hustled a fast buck, put out other guys’ lights in fistfights, and even brawled with cops. Hell, the Irish are great cop-fighters. But we stopped short of some things, the animal stuff. Beating people’s head in with weapons and wife-beating, Christ, that’s as low as you can get.
“ ‘Ask anyone. That bastard didn’t even know how to say hello. But don’t take my word for it. The Micks are notorious. for not having a good word for Wops. Go ask his own kind. His own kind hate him because he was a squealer. He even screwed them. You go ask the Italians what they think. When your own kind hate you, that tells you something.’ “
Here’s another terrific read on the making of the movie, by Richard Schickel in Vanity Fair and published in 2010. LaMotta’s death even prompted an unsigned editorial Friday from The New York Times, which dutifully reminded readers of “boxing’s steep decline in the United States.” While this may be true, it’s no less fascinating for writers. A new LaMotta biography, “Fighting for Life,” by Lew Freedman, will be published in January by Blue River Press.
Off the Sporting Green
- For anyone who owned an Apple II (raising my hand here), this may be of some interest: a new book, “Break Out,” by David Craddock, explores that machine’s role in creating the PC gaming phenomenon. Excerpt here in Polygon about Richard Garriott, considered one of the fathers of video games. My interest in the topic, sports or otherwise, started and ended with Pac Man, so I can’t hide my indifference while understanding the appeal of all this. Fantasy and eSports continue their rise, with pro sports teams getting involved to this extent. This may be a big part of the future of sports, but it’s also fraught with danger, if the fear-mongers are right;
- Lillian Ross, who died this week at the age of 99, was a powerhouse of literary journalism, from the time she started at The New Yorker in 1945 well into the digital age. James Warren at the Poynter Institute referenced her profile of Ernest Hemingway, among other achievements, as well as her interview at age 90 of a young Lin-Manuel Miranda. As Rebecca Mead wrote in her remembrance for The New Yorker:
“In so doing, she provided an example of how to be taken seriously by younger people—an objective that, for women especially, becomes more challenging as the years mount. Lillian was a generous champion of younger writers at the magazine, especially younger writers who sought, like her, to chronicle New York’s human comedy. In them—in us—she surely recognized her mischievous, enduring, shit-kicking self.”
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Coming next week: The Sports Biblio guide to fall sports books: Links, excerpts, reviews, podcasts and more. Stay tuned!
The Sports Biblio Digest is an e-mail newsletter delivered each Sunday. It contains commentary and links about sports books and history. You can subscribe here and search the archives. This is Digest issue No. 97, published Sept. 24, 2017. The Digest is a companion to the Sports Biblio website.
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