At first, it’s a little hard to understand why ESPN decided to run a massive feature story floating the allegation that Bobby Riggs threw the famous Battle of the Sexes match against Billie Jean King. The evidence for the allegation is remarkably thin, mostly the grandiose claims of an aging golf pro who has a suspiciously too-perfect story about hiding nearby while Riggs arranged the fix with some famous mafiosos. Not just the fix, even, but the entire match, as well as a set-up match with Margaret Court beforehand that Riggs would win to improve his odds against King, making the skeptic inside twitch even more. That claim, beefed up with some stories of how Riggs didn’t prepare well for the match, that Riggs was a gambling addict, and some comments from Riggs’ friends who still don’t want to believe he lost fair and square to a woman, is pretty much it. But how could ESPN resist, when this story is bound to create a massive amount of traffic?
After all, how could it not? Every single embittered, sexist man in the country—every Fox viewer, every Limbaugh fan, every visitor to Ask Men—is going to eagerly forward this story to every guy he knows, chortling triumphantly that this finally proves that women are in fact the weaker sex. To be clear, there’s no reason to think ESPN has anything against women or against female athletes. On the contrary, the organization has done a lot to promote women’s sports. The siren call of traffic is understandable, even forgiveable. In a sense, the people being most exploited here are the men whose egos are so wrapped up in the athletic performance of other men. These are the men whose need to believe in the physical inferiority of women is so great that they are eager to readjudicate a match played 40 years ago to soothe their troubled souls.
As Kate Dries at Jezebel points out, the real problem here is that the Battle of the Sexes happened at all. Then, as now, men who oppose feminism leaned heavily on the fact that the top male athletes in the world are generally better than the top female athletes in the world. The urge of feminists to respond with a “nuh-uh” and try to prove equality on the playing field is entirely understandable, but the correct response, which is absolutely easier to offer in hindsight, is to shrug and say, “So what?”
That NBA players can outjump WNBA players doesn’t say squat about whether abortion should be legal. That the men at the World Cup are faster than the women at their own World Cup doesn’t change the fact that everyday female workers should be paid the same as everyday male workers. That a handful more men than women out of the general population can manage to be both big and fast enough to play NFL football has no bearing on whether we should have affordable day care. Men at the U.S. Open hit the ball faster than the women, but that doesn’t say anything about whether women who meet the physical standards to be in combat deserve to be there. On the flip side, the greater spryness of female gymnasts also says nothing about whether men should be free to be primary caregivers, secretaries, or nurses. It’s just irrelevant.
The fact that the very best male bodies in the world can be pushed to further feats of strength than the very best female bodies in the world is an important fact only to people who directly profit from professional athletics. Maybe for fans, but only because they benefit from having twice the sports to watch.