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September 16, 2014

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Rebattling the battle of the sexes

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 female 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. Last 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, Fla., 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 at 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.

When King entered the stadium on a litter, carried by several underdressed young men and waving to the crowd, she was announcing that she understood exactly what this particular game was all about and that she wasn’t cowed by Riggs’ posturing and clowning. She won before she started. And then she actually won.

It was a message for any woman who had ever worried about being laughed at if she stepped out of line. So a claim that this story was actually just an elaborate scenario, played out to pay off one of Bobby Riggs’ gambling debts, is not something you want to ignore.

Nobody featured in this incredible tale is still alive except Shaw, the assistant golf pro who says he overheard everything. While it’s possible that Shaw kept it to himself for 40 years because he’s just not a chatty guy, one of the other lead players was talkative in the extreme. Frank Ragano, who allegedly orchestrated the gathering, eventually produced a memoir, “Mob Lawyer,” which he wrote with Selwyn Raab. There is nothing in it about tennis.

“Ragano would have mentioned it to me,” said Nicholas Pileggi, a longtime friend of Ragano’s who wrote the book’s foreword. “He wanted to do the book, and he kept telling me: ‘This could go in the book. That could go in the book.’ Anything that was going to help promote the book.”

Pileggi, one of the world’s great experts on all things Mafia, was offended at the idea that anyone could imagine top mob bosses trotting into a country club and hashing out a long-running plot to fix a tennis match in the pro shop.

“The notion of Santo Trafficante and Carlos Marcello appearing together in a public locker room is so outrageous,” he sniffed. “These guys do not meet.”

In “Mob Lawyer,” Ragano has all kinds of stories about corruption and advanced criminality. He claimed that in 1963 he took a message from Jimmy Hoffa to Trafficante and Marcello, asking that President John F. Kennedy be killed and that after the assassination he and Trafficante drank a toast.

We don’t need to go down the Kennedy conspiracy path here. All I’m saying is that anybody who was willing to publicize his connection to the murder of a president of the United States would not have been shy about bringing up Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs.

Case closed.

Gail Collins is a columnist for The New York Times.

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