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A ray of progress for women as Battle of the Sexes turns 35

As an exercise in televised decadence, the Houston Astrodome played host to a masquerade ball of sorts on Sept. 20, 1973. Dancing pigs roamed the aisles as a farcical ode to chauvinism, fans wore "Libber" buttons as a bow to feminism, and celebrities like singing cowboy Glen Campbell, dressed in (what else?) rhinestones, moved through the who's-who crowd. Boxer George Foreman wore a blue suit with a polka-dot shirt as he took a seat next to football star Jim Brown, who was a coin toss from artist LeRoy Neiman.

They were ready for the show, "The Battle of the Sexes" match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. In a book I wrote about that surreal night, Billie described to me a scene just before the event. Down a corridor, in a baseball clubhouse, Billie waited for her cue when she was approached by the carnival barker behind the match, TV czar Jerry Perenchio. (He was Norman Lear's right-hand man for the production of Maude and All in the Family before he chaired Univision.)

Not far behind Jerry stood a half dozen bronzed track stars from Rice University, all wearing togas as they flanked an Egyptian litter decorated with plumes of pink feathers. "Um, Billie, this is probably something you wouldn't want to do," Perenchio told her delicately, "but would you want to be on that litter? We'd love to take you out on it."

Without hesitation, Billie, wearing blue suede Adidas sneakers and a sequined tennis dress for the occasion, replied, "God, that would be great." And with that nod, Billie entered the Astrodome on the litter as a Cleopatra with a backhand while Bobby was ferried in by babes on a rickshaw.

That's how it began: excessive, over the top. And, as Billie understood, that's how this swing moment in history had to be. Her statement match with Bobby -- a straight sets victory, which, more than anything dispelled myths about women as mentally frail under pressure -- couldn't exist as a simple feminist flash. It had to be a spectacle to be remembered forever. It had to be a media draw to make a difference. In front of a worldwide TV audience of 90 million, Billie knew social change needed witnesses to move people.

Thirty-five years later, the televised images of that night in the Astrodome, with play-by-play from ABC's Howard Cosell, still resonate as an unforgettable milestone for gender equality.

It also serves as a primer for today's female athlete. Certainly Title IX, which was saved by Billie and others when it was assailed in 1975 and again in 2002, has given thousands of young girls opportunities in sports, but the stage is far from shared. Women are still trying to gain recognition in the athletic world, with a lens that hardly follows them unless the ladies are part of something sexy, sensational or scandalous.

On the surface, this doesn't make sense. If, as the stats show, more women are playing and watching sports, why aren't more of them demanding to see their own in action? Where's the female bonding? Where's the estrogen fan club?

What do red-blooded American women want? The NFL, for one thing. As Roger Goodell, the kingpin of the gladiator league, will tell you, women make up 45 percent of the NFL's fan base. As much as any demographic, the gridiron-lovin' gals have helped feed the NFL obsession in America. The attraction isn't just the game -- easy to follow, easy to bet on - but the cultural reach of the NFL. No doubt there are different reasons for the football femme phenomenon -- women are more participatory in sports and less likely to watch someone like, Abby Wambach play pro soccer, and female team sports leagues are viewed as inferior knockoffs of, say, the NBA -- but the NFL has become part of the workday experience: Did you see the game on Sunday? How did your fantasy team do? In order to integrate into a workplace often dominated by men, many women have adopted football as part of their social lexicon in order to be included in the assembly-line or water-cooler conversation. They can talk Xs and Os and Tony Romo, too.

There is no gender reciprocation here. There is no large band of men hovering in front of the tube to see a fast-pitch softball game unless, of course, they want to impress their boss -- and their boss happens to be Jennie Finch. Outside of maybe tennis -- and only if a Williams sister is involved -- about the only time a female athlete nudges in on the office-cubicle dynamic is when an event transcends box scores: Danica Patrick racing men at Indy or Chinese gymnasts from the "Dora the Explorer" age group competing in Beijing. Again, it's sensation and scandal that moves the mainstream needle.

It would all seem hopeless if not for a ray of progress. One player with a lot of Billie Jean King in her may be altering the gender viewing habits of women and men. She is Candace Parker, one part great athlete, one part showman. As a rookie out of Tennessee -- the star everyone watched play in the NCAA tournament with a separated shoulder -- Parker has become a marquee draw for the WNBA as a leader of the L.A. Sparks, helping to lift merchandise sales, attendance figures and increase viewership on ESPN by more than 20 percent this season.

She is attractive, yes, but is known more for her aggressive and flamboyant playing style. Because a woman's worth in sports is almost always valued in a tale of the tape with men, Parker measures up to the cultural scale. After all, the lady can dunk -- like a man. She was also involved in a brawl this season when the Sparks played Detroit that drew media attention to the sport -- like any men's fight would.

Parker has forced a social dialogue by being seen and heard. She is a go-to on highlight reels and a pitchwoman for corporations. In her own way, she has channeled Billie and her sense of drama and flair. But Parker is being witnessed without the spectacle of playing against a man, without Cosell in the TV booth, without dancing pigs in the aisles. Thirty-five years after the "Battle of the Sexes," after the necessary excess in the Astrodome, perhaps Parker is proving women, particularly in team sports, can be a main attraction with no bells and whistles required.

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