Collins: Did mobsters fix the battle of the sexes?

  • Bobby Riggs goes after a quick shot by Billie Jean King in the winner-take-all match in the Astrodome in Houston, Tex., on Sept. 20, 1973. (AP Photo)

We are always refighting old battles. But I honestly did not expect to be spending any time in 2013 arguing about whether Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs.

Next month we'll celebrate the 40th anniversary of King's victory in "The Battle of the Sexes," the tennis match that demonstrated to an astonished world that the best woman tennis player in the country could, at 29, beat a 55-year-old guy who used to be good at the game.

I know. You had to be there.

But if you were, it was quite a moment. Then this week, ESPN released a much-promoted report suggesting the whole thing was a fraud. The new evidence is a 79-year-old man who claims to have listened while a couple of mob bosses met at a Tampa country club and discussed Riggs' promise to throw the match.

The alleged witness, Hal Shaw, told ESPN that on a winter night about 40 years ago, he was working behind the pro shop at Palma Ceia Country Club when Santo Trafficante Jr., the mob boss of Florida, and Carlos Marcello, the mob boss of New Orleans, walked in with Trafficante's lawyer, Frank Ragano.

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.

And then they went away.

Now strange things happen in sports. Some day when you are 79, you may suddenly remember that you were cleaning a saddle at a major U.S. racetrack in 1973, when a group of well-dressed horses walked in and began discussing a long-range plan to throw the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes so Secretariat could win the Triple Crown.

If this were any other sports victory, we could just shrug and move on. 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.

When he said that "a woman's place is in the bedroom and the kitchen, in that order," you did not see a frightened man defending his threatened prerogatives. You saw a guy laughing at the whole business of girls trying to pretend to be good at sports. Or business. Or the military. Or whatever.

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